Australia Awards in Indonesia

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15 Mar 2018

Marriage Payment, Social Change and Women’s Agency Among Bimanese Muslims of Eastern Indonesia

Atun Wardatun
Western Sydney University


This thesis draws on ethnographic research that focuses on the cultural practice of female initiated marriage payment, ampa co’i ndai, among semi-urban Bimanese Muslims of Eastern Indonesia. The practice takes place when the bride, with the help of her parents and female relatives, pays her own marriage payment (co’i). It is normally used only when the prospective groom is a government employee. However, during the declaration of marriage, the payment is announced to have come from the groom. This thesis uses the practice as a site to examine women’s agency and a lens to understand social change in a modernizing Muslim society that has a heritage of bilateral kinship.

The interplay of the kinship system, modernization, women’s agency and marriage payment demonstrates the value of “structuration theory” developed by Anthony Giddens (1984), showing that social structure and agency continuously shape and are shaped by each other. This thesis argues that ampa co’i ndai serves as a means of taking advantage of new opportunities opened up by modernization; this local variant of Islamic marriage payments allows women to appropriate what was traditionally considered a male prerogative and use it to equalize gender imbalance. The practice also sheds light on what I identify as the ‘collective solidarity’ that maybe involved in exercising agency, demonstrating agency of power and agency of projects amalgamated, as conceptualised by Sherry B. Ortner (2006).

The bilateral kinship system of the Bimanese, which involves both reciprocity and complementarity (angi) between husbands and wives, was challenged with the arrival of modernization in the late 1960s. Subsistence agriculture, previously practiced by most Bimanese, in which women played a major role, started to be displaced under the Indonesian New Order (1966–1998) economic development programs. These developments program involved, among other things, increasing number of prestigious government bureaucratic positions, which went to men rather than women. The previously parallel and complementary positions of women and men, in marriage, both of whom were farmers, came to be less common, including in semi-urban areas, as the conception of men as sole economic providers and women as housewives came to be more prevalent.

The introduction of this distinction between workplace and home, distanced the two domains, with the status of the former raised in social and economic terms, and the latter correspondingly devalued. However, the normative centrality of women in the household (matrifocality) and sense of solidarity of local communities (communality) has still provided a cultural place for ampa co’i ndai. Matrifocality continues to lend strength to the bond between mothers and daughters and promote solidarity among female relatives, enabling women to initiate and execute this unusual practice, and enjoy its benefits. Communality continues to provide a basis for public funding (pamaco) for female-initiated marriage payments, and so serves as an alternative economic resource for a wedding. This has made it possible for women of lower economic status to also participate in the practice. Ampa co’i ndai thus demonstrates that agency can be collectively constructed, and involves the shared responsibility of relatives and the community-what I have called ‘collective solidarity.’

The narratives of nineteen Muslim women who have been involved in ampa co’i ndai reveal how deep-seated collective solidarity underpins the ways women pursue their goals when using this practice. They use it not just for themselves as individuals, but also for the status of women as wives, mothers, and daughters. Ampa co’i ndai is a testament to the complexities of gender power relations, which too often are understood in terms of essentialized women’s roles concerned wholly with the welfare of their families. However, ampa co’i ndai also shows women’s interdependence and the considerable lengths to which they will go using that mutual dependence to gain power and prestige for themselves and their relatives.

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