Indonesia's First Lady wants to be own woman

Indonesia's First Lady wants to be own woman
First Lady Iriana does not flaunt designer bags and shuns make-up artists, but her umbellished dressing has won praise from many Indonesians.

 

It takes a lot of confidence for a woman to stand alongside her spouse who is head of state, and a lot more to resist the pressure to change.

Indonesia's First Lady Iriana Joko Widodo, 51, does not flaunt designer handbags or sunglasses, shuns make-up artists and likes to visit bird markets in her hometown Solo because of her bird-rearing hobby.

"I never imagined becoming a First Lady. But it has to flow naturally, of course, from (my husband) being a carpenter to President," she was quoted as saying in local media.

"I want to be myself. I never imitate anyone else," she added.

Ms Iriana has shown she can be just as comfortable in shirt and jeans, like when she accompanied her husband on the campaign trail, as in the traditional orange kebaya she wore during his presidential inauguration last Monday.

Her unembellished dressing has won much praise from many Indonesians. "She is humble and simple... I wonder if the ministers' wives will feel pressure to be less extravagant," said civil servant Shinta Wiryono, 28.

Unlike her immediate predecessor Ani Yudhoyono, who has an Instagram account with nearly 760,000 followers, Ms Iriana is not a fan of social media.

When asked by local broadcaster SCTV about being active on Instagram, she shot back playfully: "What food is that? Is it tasty?"

While there is no clear role for the First Lady, Ms Iriana has said she wants to use her term to improve the people's access to education, including building more schools in remote districts.

She has big shoes to fill, especially when Indonesians have high expectations and wish to see a First Family with a new style, and are certain to compare her to past First Ladies.

The wife of president Suharto, Tien Suharto, was the most decorated. When she died in 1996, aged 72, she was conferred the title of National Heroine for her work to highlight Indonesian culture and also women's issues.

Mrs Yudhoyono, popularly referred to as Ibu Ani, received an award for Women Empowerment in Education from L'Oreal and Unesco in November last year for her work through her association Solidarity of Unified Cabinet Ministers' Wives (SIKIB), which she founded in 2005 to accelerate the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals in areas such as education, health, creativity, empowerment of women, social care and the environment.

Though Ms Iriana has been in the public eye for nearly a decade, since her husband was elected Mayor of Solo in 2005, little is known about this low-profile mother of three. She has rarely been in the news for any controversies though she drew criticism for her inconsistent use of the headscarf while on the campaign trail, especially during the period when her husband was being accused of being "less of a Muslim".

But what is clear is that Indonesians seem to love her humble, down-to-earth and approachable personality, exactly the same traits that have made her husband so popular.

In an interview the First Family gave to media hours before the inauguration, she was seen standing slightly behind her husband, preferring to stay in the shadows.

In an interview five days after the Election Commission officially declared her husband president, she burst into girlish laughter and jabbed her husband playfully when he said it was her "simple appearance and village look" that attracted him to her.

Ms Iriana may be a person of few words like her husband, but her replies are carefully thought through and succinct.

"I am ready," was her reply when he sought her advice on whether to accept the nomination for president. She explained why he did not need to persuade her.

"Being asked to consider being president is a noble mandate. It has to be undertaken. Not everyone is given this chance."

Her firmness in principles began at the start of their 28 years of marriage. She declared her rejection of polygamy, writing in the official document on her conditions to marriage as "No other wives". The First Couple's modest ways seem to have rubbed off on their three children - son Gibran Rakabuming, 27, daughter Kahiyang Ayu, 23, and son Kaesang Pangarep, 18.

Mr Gibran, who is single and studied at the Management Development Institute of Singapore before attending the University of Technology in Sydney, has said he wants to continue earning his own keep by working on his Solo-based catering service.

Miss Kahiyang, who graduated from Sebelas Maret University in Solo last year majoring in food technology, is waiting to enter the civil service in Solo. When she hurt her hand recently, she reportedly went to a public medical centre where she waited in line, refusing to drop her father's name.

Mr Kaesang, who is in the final year of his international baccalaureate studies at Singapore's ACS (International), wants people to treat him as before.

Though she is now Indonesia's First Lady and has butlers to look after her family's needs, Ms Iriana makes sure that some things never change. For one thing, she still prepares her husband's "jamu" or herbal tonic drink every day.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on October 27, 2014.
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