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Introduction A C onundrum and T wo R esearchers I n t h e s p r i n g o f 2 0 1 0 , a woman was elected the bupati of Bantul, the head of a sprawling and diverse district (kabupaten) adjoining the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Ibu Midiwati is the first woman bupati in the special province of Yogyarta and one of the few intheentireRepublicofIndonesia.Herelectionappearstobeanother step in the formal empowerment of women in a nation where recent transformation of the political system has promised to offer new opportunities for democratic politics and where conflicting perceptions and interpretations of women’s real power and status have been the subject of controversy for years. The appearance of progress is somewhat belied by deeper knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Bu Midiwati’s election, which in many ways reflects very old patterns. She was convinced to run by the political supporters of her husband, the previous bupati, when he reached his limit of two terms in that office. As the former bupati’s wife, her political education and administrative experience come from being the formal head of the PKK and Dharma Wanita, women’s auxiliary organizations whose membership and leadership were automatically conferred upon the wives of government officials during the previous political regime. Bu Midiwati herself is the first and “official” wife of the former bupati, who has been the subject of rumor and gossip about 2 Introduction possible additional wives, a practice that previously was a rarity in Indonesia and met with ambivalence at best by women in the society, but is becoming increasingly common among those who can afford it. She has experienced condemnation from some religious leaders who believe women are religiously prohibited and spiritually unfit for political office. As if to validate these doubts, she openly acknowledges that she has appointed a special consultant to help her in her new duties—her husband, the previous bupati. Like her more famous compatriot, the former president of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the sources of her power and authority appear to lie in her relationship to a powerful male political figure, and her own identification with and execution of her position involve numerous ambiguities and contradictions. Does Bu Midiwati’s election represent increasing power and public space for women in a society that already has a strong record of according women relatively high status and power, or is it an example of a “deceptive distinction” (Epstein 1988) that masks deep culturally sanctioned limits to their power? The status of women in rural Java appears contradictory to observers from both inside and outside the culture. On the one hand, past studies indicate that women have high status and power in Javanese society, with substantial access to resources inside the household and in the larger society, especially in comparison to women from other Asian societies and Islamic cultures. Other, more recent accounts create doubt about this assessment, suggesting that Javanese women are neither as powerful nor as autonomous as previous studies have described. These two contrasting approaches view Javanese gender relations from two different perspectives, focusing on different aspects of women’s lives. Javanese women have major responsibilities in supporting their families, often as the primary income earners in their households. They typically control household finances, and they own and manage property in their own names. Increasingly, their presence is evident in public office. Yet these symbols and potential sources of independence and influence are tightly circumscribed by a culturally prescribed, A Conundrum and Two Researchers 3 state-reinforced, patriarchal gender ideology that limits women’s autonomy and mobilizes their labor for particular political ends. The contradiction pervades gender relations and is reflected both in Javanese women’s lives and in the studies that attempt to explain them. Contradictions in gender roles and practices are not unique to rural Java or Indonesia and have been broadly identified and analyzed in numerous social and political settings. Yet these contradictions remain deeply puzzling to gender analysts, all the more so when they appear as starkly evident as in modern Indonesia, a society that has long stood at the crossroads of cultures and development trajectories. Thus, it is not surprising that unraveling the conundrum of Javanese gender relations would come to preoccupy the intellectual energies of two feminist scholars from opposite ends of the world, each of whom brought to the research both general interest in gender relations and specific interest in Indonesia. Ann Tickamyer is an American-born sociologist who first visited Indonesia...


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