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Rendra and Women

By: Arahmaiani

MONDAY, 28 JUNE 2010 09:45, Inside Indonesia, EDITION 101: JUL-SEP 2010

Rendra was charmed by and concerned for women, particularly the oppressed.

Rendra cared about oppressed women Siobhan Campbell

The sad news finally came and I attended Rendra’s funeral to pay my last respects. I thought back to our first meeting in 1985 when a Dutch painter friend Bert Hermens invited me to his small exhibition and discussion at Rendra’s Bengkel Teater rehearsal space. I had not met Rendra before and was impressed by his charm. After that I often spent time at Bengkel Teater and Rendra’s library and he gave me two books which I kept and often referred to. The gift of these two books, The Pararaton (a translation of the Old Javanese (Kawi) text, The Book of Kings) and Dante’s Divine Comedy, encouraged me to study the links between culture, politics, social science, economics, and religion. It gave me a greater insight into history, literary works and poetry in general but especially into cultural differences.

Sometimes I felt the need to ask Rendra about things important to me that I did not fully understand. So apart from being a good friend, I will always remember him as an adviser. Rendra was the first person to open my mind to a deeper understanding of tradition, culture, politics, social science and economics through his critical, alternative approach. He reminded me to ‘always remember the weak and marginalised’, and to be aware of and always question the establishment. Slowly but surely the seeds of knowledge grew and flourished in my inner being and imagination.

Women’s rights

Everything that Rendra fought for, democracy, the rule of law, a re-imagining of traditional culture, and critical analysis became a focus of my thinking and something I still reflect on today. And in his own special way he also helped

sharpen my understanding of gender relations. He was concerned about the role of women, the poor and commercial sex workers in particular. He discussed their problems in such poems as ‘Nyanyian Angsa’ (Swan Song, 1971), ‘Bersatulah Pelacur-pelacur Kota Jakarta’ (Unite Prostitutes of Jakarta, 1971). In the following poem ‘Kenapa Kau Taruh’ (Why Do You Place, 1990) he highlights inequalities between men and women and the stereotyping of women as sex objects.

Ini terlalu!

Ada banyak masalah wanita kecuali dadanya.

Para buruh wanita masih kurang terjamin haknya.

Metode keluarga berencana terlalu mengorbankan wanita. Wanita nakal disebut tuna susila. Lelaki nakal disebut Sang Arjuna.


Terhadap wanita lelaki selalu salah sangka. Wanita cantik disangka sekadar pemandangan.

None Jakarta disangka kue ulang-tahun yang bisa diiris dan dibagi-bagi.

Kewanitaan dan kecantikanku selalu menjadi beban.

Sekarang aku akan mengubahnya sehingga menjadi alat perjuangan. Tidak sekedar mawar-mawar berduri. Aku pun memelihara dengan teliti kuku-kuku yang sedang panjangnya. Bukan sekadar hiasan kecantikan tetapi senjata yang bisa mencakar.

It’s too much!

There are so many women’s issues besides her breasts.

The rights of women workers are still not fully guaranteed. Family planning methods victimise women.

Playgirls are termed immoral.

Playboys are Arjuna, Prince of Love.

Men always get women wrong.

They take pretty women as just scenery. Miss Jakarta is mistaken for a birthday cake to be sliced up and shared round.

My femininity and my beauty

have always been a burden to me. Now I’m going to change them into tools of battle.

And it’s not just thorned roses.

I’m carefully growing my fingernails too.

They’re quite long now and not just decorative

but weapons that can claw.

This was how Rendra used his poetry to shock his readers into acknowledging the claims of oppressed women in a patriarchal society. He presented images of women on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy, in the grip of poverty, unable to find work and forced into prostitution to support themselves and/or their families. The following extract from the poem ‘Bersatulah Pelacur-Pelacur Kota Jakarta’ shows how fearlessly he pursued those he regarded as degrading the dignity of women:

Politisi dan pegawai tinggi adalah caluk yang rapi.

Kongres-kongres dan konferensi tak pernah berjalan tanpa kalian. Kalian tak pernah bisa bilang ‘tidak’

lantaran kelaparan yang menakutkan kemiskinan yang mengekang

dan telah lama sia-sia cari kerja. Ijazah sekolah tanpa guna.

Para kepala jawatan

akan membuka kesempatan kalau kau membuka paha. sedang di luar pemerintahan perusahaan-perusahaan macet lapangan kerja tak ada.

Revolusi para pemimpin adalah revolusi dewa-dewa Mereka berjuang untuk syurga dan tidak untuk bumi.

Revolusi dewa-dewa

tak pernah menghasilkan lebih banyak lapangan kerja bagi rakyatnya.

Kalian adalah sebahagian kaum penganggur yang mereka ciptakan.

The politicians and senior civil servants are a tight bunch of rogues.

Their congresses and conferences wouldn’t run without you.

You must never say ‘no’ because of the terror of hunger the yoke of poverty

and your long futile search for work. School diplomas were useless.

The section heads

could only open the doors of opportunity if you would open your legs.

And outside government

were only run-down businesses with no vacancies.

The leader’s revolution was a revolution of gods. They fought for heaven and not for this earth.

A revolution by gods has never produced more jobs

for the ordinary people

You are a part of the proletariat they created.

Using strong images and forthright language he described how women were turned into mere ‘lubricants’ for business transactions or to smooth the workings of bureaucracy. In the meantime the godlike elite – the politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats – only managed to create fresh problems and new ranks of unemployed. And the status of women became increasingly threatened.

Women and religion

In patriarchal societies women have always been under pressure. But the attitudes of religious ultra-conservatives, both Muslim and non-Muslim in contemporary society has increased this pressure. In the name of upholding religious values, they abuse women’s rights and treat women at times as less than human, as is the case under the anti-pornography bill, a law which objectifies women and portrays them as a threat to public morality. It would appear that the ideology of the patriarchy is growing stronger day by day. As radical and ultra-conservative Muslims alike transform the symbols of religion into instruments of power, women have become scapegoats in the bid to control religion and the state.

The treatment of women at the hands of religion was Rendra’s focus in the poem ‘Nyanyian Angsa’, even though the context here was not Islam but Roman Catholicism, his faith at the time he wrote the poem:

‘Kamu telah tergoda dosa.’

‘Tidak tergoda. Tapi melulu berdosa.’ ‘Kamu telah terbujuk setan.’

‘Tidak. Saya terdesak kemiskinan. Dan gagal mencari kerja.’

‘Santo Petrus!’

‘Santo Petrus! Pater, dengarkan saya. Saya tak butuh tahu asal usul dosa saya. Yang nyata hidup saya sudah gagal.

Jiwa saya kalut. Dan saya mau mati.

Sekarang saya takut sekali. Saya perlu Tuhan atau apa saja untuk menemani saya.

Dan muka pastor menjadi merah padam.

Ia menuding Maria Zaitun.

‘Kamu galak seperti macan betina. Barangkali kamu akan gila. Tapi tak akan mati.

Kamu tak perlu pastor. Kamu perlu dokter jiwa.

‘You were led into sin’

‘Not led. But I have sinned greatly’ ‘You were deceived by the devil’ ‘No, I was forced by poverty.

And my failure to find a job. ‘By St Peter!’

‘By St Peter! Father, listen to me I don’t need to know why I sinned

I realize my life has been a failure My soul is confused

And I am going to die But I am terribly afraid

I need God or whatever to befriend me’

The priest’s face reddens He points as Maria Zaitun

‘You are some sort of wild tigress Maybe you are mad

But you are not about to die You do not need a priest You need a psychiatrist.

In the culture of patriarchy men lead and women must follow their commands. When women dare to challenge this by putting forward their own claims men feel threatened. Inevitably society will stigmatise these women as wild or crazy and needing even tighter control to protect the status quo.

Rendra understood this problem, even though he too practised polygamy and had mistresses. His style and behaviour earned him the affectionate title of ‘Burung Merak’, the Peacock, that proud and colourful bird displaying his charms with pea-hens trailing after him. But – with all his strengths and weaknesses – for me he was a great writer, friend and defender of the downtrodden, and not simply a charismatic man.

Arahmaiani ([email protected]) is an artist & writer. The translation of ‘Kenapa Kau Taruh’ used here is by Suzan Piper, and the translations of ‘Bersatulah Pelacur-Pelacur Kota Jakarta’ and ‘Nyanyian Angsa’ by Harry Aveling. option=com_mailto&tmpl=component&link=aHR0cDovL3d3dy5pbnNpZGV pbmRvbmVzaWEub3JnL2VkaXRpb24tMTAxL3JlbmRyYS1hbmQtd29tZW4 tMDIwNzEzMzE=

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