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State Ibuism and One Happy Family: Polygamy and the “Good” Woman in Contemporary Indonesian Narratives

Part of the Asia in Transition book series (AT,volume 6)


This chapter examines the construction of the modern Indonesian woman’s gender behaviour and identity in the national imaginary by interrogating the discourse of polygamy in selected narratives . Despite the democratising forces of the New Post Order government and the advancements in women’s rights and positions, Indonesia remains a patriarchal-paternalistic space whose emphasis on family unity and gender harmony—seen in the intertwined ideologies of Kodrat (natural destiny), Ibuism (motherhood) , and Keluarga Sakinah (peaceful, harmonious family)—also limits women’s rights to their freedoms, bodies and sexuality. These ideologies not only emphasise model feminine behaviour traits that include submission and piousness through the ideal roles of wife and mother, but they also perpetuate gendered hierarchies at the state level through the idea of the nation as a united and inclusive family, or “one happy family.” By examining the intersections between gender and sexual identities and the patriarchal nation-state through the potent symbol of family, I consider how these ideologies regulate concepts of “good” women and normative femininities in contemporary Indonesia. At the same time, I argue that the articulations of female desire, agency and autonomy in these narratives contribute to the ongoing discursive negotiations and transformations in gender and sexual identities and relations occurring within the sociopolitical landscape of contemporary Indonesia.


  • Indonesian literature
  • Indonesian cinema
  • Polygamy
  • One Happy Family
  • State Ibuism
  • Titis Basino
  • Nia Dinata

This chapter develops my arguments from an earlier article published under: Chin, Grace V. S.  2012. Imagined subjects: Polygamy, gender and nation in Nia Dinata’s Love for Share. Journal of International Women’s Studies 13(3): 137–152.

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  1. 1.

    Established by President Sukarno since the birth of Indonesia as a nation-state in 1945, Pancasila contains five principles that form the state ideology: (1) nationalism, (2) internationalism or humanitarianism, (3) representative government or consent, (4) social prosperity or justice, and (5) belief in God (Bertrand 2004, 31–32).

  2. 2.

    With the emergence of the young generation of women writers like Ayu Utami and Dewi Lestari and their sastrawangi (fragrant literature) after the Reformasi movement, veteran writers like Basino have largely been ignored or “forgotten” (Arimbi 2009, 14) by Indonesia’s contemporary literary scene.

  3. 3.

    Polygamy also includes polyandry, in which a woman can have more than one husband. In Indonesia, polygyny is commonly practised as Muslim men are permitted by the Koran to marry up to four wives.

  4. 4.

    The narratives of Basino and Dinata speak primarily to women readers and audiences. In an interview, Basino claims that she writes in order to give voice to women who have been silenced: “Since [women] cannot scream I let those people know how women feel when they are deceived through infidelity. There are many men who have extramarital affairs but their wives just cannot get angry or say no. I write so that those people can read” (cited in Arimbi 2009, 89). Similarly, Dinata believes that her film appeals to women like herself, “the daughters of a polygamous father that want to prevent this from happening in their own marriage” (Tehrani 2007). By catering to the female gaze, Dinata both challenges and subverts the established “heterosexual male gaze” (Tatyzo 2011, 29) in Indonesian cinematic tradition.

  5. 5.

    For background information on Basino and Dinata as well as an analysis of their works, see Arimbi (2009) and Tatyzo (2011) respectively.

  6. 6.

    For a deeper insight into Kartini’s emotional response to her impending marriage, read Coté’s excellent work, Kartini: The complete writings (2014), particularly the section “Letters 1903,” the year she got married. Kartini was not the only dissenting female voice in her family; her sisters too called for the abolition of the practice, particularly Soematri who, in a letter to the Welfare Commission, had observed its “depressing effect” on women and children (Coté 2008, 272–74).

  7. 7.

    Sukarno was a known womaniser and practitioner of polygamy while Suharto was said to have frowned on the practice. The difference in their attitudes is reflected in their respective governments’ treatment of polygamy. While it thrived under Sukarno’s administration, polygamy came under intense scrutiny during Suharto’s governance when the practice was restricted through the 1974 Marriage Law. For an overview of Indonesian women and marriage traditions from early 1900s to the 1960s, please refer to Nurmila (2009, 46–52).

  8. 8.

    For details of the 1974 Marriage Law, please refer to Robinson (2000), Blackburn (2004), Nurmila (2008). For its implications on the practice of polygamy as well as its consequences for civil servants, read Nurmila (2009, 45–64). Suryakusuma (1996) provides a fascinating analysis of the effects of the marriage reforms on male civil servants and their wives, including the manner in which their sexual life is regulated by the government.

  9. 9.

    Additionally, the concept of Kodrat Wanita is insidiously “justified as indigenous, ‘traditional,’ ‘our Indonesian way’—as opposed to alien, excessively Western-influenced conceptions of female equality and independence” (Hatley 1997, 99) in order to keep women toeing the line in both family and national discourses.

  10. 10.

    Depending on social or cultural contexts, Ibu can be broadly used to denote a variety of women’s roles in Indonesia.

  11. 11.

    For an invigorating discussion of Indonesian women’s political engagement with the state over their rights as citizens, refer to Blackburn (2004, 84–110).

  12. 12.

    The pervasiveness with which women are associated with subservience is, for instance, reflected in Indonesian cinema. According to Sen (1998), the citizen/subject is invariably assumed as male: “Agency, whether in reproducing or challenging the political and economic structures of Indonesia, is thus ascribed almost exclusively to men. In all these scenarios women play the roles of victims or, at best, survivors against great odds” (37).

  13. 13.

    For my analysis, I use Lamoureux’s translation of Basino’s Dia, titled Her: An Indonesian short story (2001).

  14. 14.

    Kurnia (2009) perceives this big family as a symbol of the “overpopulated Javanese family typical of the most overpopulated island in Indonesia” and that the film “gestures towards the issue of the lack of family planning, and the associated poverty and overpopulation.”

  15. 15.

    It’s worthwhile noting that the co-wives are also portrayed as women comfortable with their sexuality and desires, especially Sri and Dwi. Tatyzo (2011) argues that they challenge “the wife/whore binary in Indonesian cinema in which sexually active women are often presented as prostitutes, and wives’ sexuality is limited to reproduction” (34).

  16. 16.

    This scene also raises questions about poverty and its related social ills, although Dinata does not fully engage these issues in her film.

  17. 17.

    All translations for Supiyah are my own.

  18. 18.

    See Kurnia (2009) and Imanjaya (2009) for their readings of the secret marriages in the film.


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I am grateful to the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), Leiden, the Netherlands, for allowing me full access to their archives. I also thank Joost Coté for his comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

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Correspondence to Grace V. S. Chin .

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Chin, G.V.S. (2018). State Ibuism and One Happy Family: Polygamy and the “Good” Woman in Contemporary Indonesian Narratives. In: Chin, G., Mohd Daud, K. (eds) The Southeast Asian Woman Writes Back. Asia in Transition, vol 6. Springer, Singapore.

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