More than a woman: Liberated female writers aim high in fiction

More than a woman: Liberated female writers aim high in fiction

INDONESIA - After the awakening of sastra wangi (fragrant literature), women writers have been writing on large canvasses, exploring themes beyond themselves and their own lives.

From Marah Rusli's Sitti Nurbaya to Djenar Maesa Ayu's Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! (They Say I'm a Monkey!), Indonesian literature has witnessed a thriving women's movement in the patriarchal society.

Established in the early years of the 20th century in Padang, West Sumatra, the novel was a tragic romance in which the protagonists, Sitti Nurbaya and Samsulbahri, are forced apart due to the shackles of local tradition and patriarchy against the backdrop of the revolutionary war against the Dutch.

The country's proclamation of independence did not translate into women's freedom or equality. It actually complicated the shackles in the name of conservative Europeanized society, religion and military pressures.

Djenar's work, in the form of a collection of short stories published just four years after the downfall of Soeharto, was the pinnacle of the sastra wangi literary movement, which was propelled by women writers writing about sexuality, politics and urban life.

After Ayu Utami's seminal work, Saman (1998), which openly discussed political and military oppression under Soeharto's New Order regime via graphic sex scenes, Djenar wrote about sexual and physical violence against women and children, as well as using her craft to challenge the prohibition of women smoking and drinking alcohol in the Muslim-majority country.

The liberation of women in literature brought about by the sastra wangi movement was in some ways similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age, in which he portrayed flapper girls, women who had their hair cut in a bob, went to bars to smoke and drink and enjoyed carefree sex lives; something that was completely alien in post-World War I America, where the selling and drinking of alcohol was illegal.

Since sastra wangi was launched, however, there was no turning back in women's literature. From empowered women who consciously surrender to commercialism in chick lit novels to religious freedom, Indonesian women began writing about overarching themes and topics.

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