Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The New Muslim Romance: Changing Patterns of Courtship and Marriage among Educated Javanese Youth

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The New Muslim Romance: Changing Patterns of Courtship and Marriage among Educated Javanese Youth

Article excerpt

Behind headlines about political instability, terrorist attacks and religious violence, gender relations in Muslim Java have undergone a quiet transformation over the past generation. The broad outlines of this transformation can be seen in large-scale sociological surveys, ethnographic accounts and country reports. Statistics from these varied sources indicate that age at first marriage for Indonesian women changed rapidly throughout the 1960s. Prior to that time, one-third of all young women married by age 16. By the 1970s, only 10 per cent were marrying by that age. (1) The Australian demographer, Gavin Jones, describes this seemingly simple change as a 'revolution', adding that it took place after what had been half a century of stability. As Jones writes: 'The word "revolution" is no exaggeration in describing these trends, because the changes, besides being dramatic in themselves, reflect fundamental changes in family structure, parent-child relationships, child-raising practices, and expectations of daughters'. (2)

New marriage legislation enacted in 1975 played a role in the dramatic shift in marriage patterns by setting minimum ages at 16 for women and 19 for men, and by enshrining the principle that the consent of both parties to marriage must be obtained? Jones and others have emphasized, however, that the most critical influence on this transformation was the rapid expansion in educational opportunities for women that took place during Suharto's 'New Order' government (1966-98). Employment opportunities for young women and state policies encouraging women's participation in the work force provided a further incentive for Javanese parents to allow their daughters to put off marriage and remain in school, with an eye towards using their education to land a job. (4)

With some 88.7 per cent of its 220 million citizens professing Islam, Indonesia is a Muslim-majority society (indeed the most populous in the Muslim world), and the new freedoms and opportunities for women expressed in these statistics on marriage have been tempered by many youths' growing commitment to the demands of their religious faith. In the last two decades of the New Order era, Muslim Indonesia experienced an unprecedented resurgence in public piety and devotion. The resurgence was influenced by many things, including mass education, new religious media, travel and education in the Middle East and, more generally, growing disenchantment with the conservative nationalist policies of the Suharto regime. (5)

In the case of Indonesia, the resurgence was also noticeable in mandatory religious courses throughout the educational system from primary schools to universities. Muslim students in these classes were instructed, not just in the basic ritual and intellectual tenets of their faith, but in 'proper' gender roles and behaviour as well. State-sponsored religious education placed strong emphasis, for example, on the ideal of husbands as major providers and wives as helpmates and mothers whose primary responsibilities lie in the home. (6) Students were also taught that, rather than tolerating the more casual interactions between the sexes long common in Muslim Indonesia, interactions with unrelated members of the opposite sex are fraught with danger, because they can lead so easily to sinful acts (dosa/zina). In a society where traditionally few Muslim women veiled, young women were encouraged to understand that their aurat must not be exposed and their heads and hair must be kept covered. (7)

While demographic accounts like Jones' are invaluable in mapping large-scale social changes, they offer little ethnographic detail to allow us to understand the cultural substance of these transformations and their implications for social, family and gender roles. These are the issues I propose to examine in this article, using ethnographic and life historical material to explore changing attitudes towards courtship and marriage among educated Muslim Javanese youth, as seen against the backdrop of Islamic resurgence, growing educational achievement and socioeconomic change. …

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