Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Gender, Religion and Colonialism: a Story of Change in Indonesia

Quick vocab:

1. Biosex: the biological sex of a person’s body
2. Gender identity: the gender/s that a person identifies with, which may not match their biosex
3. Assigned gender: the gender which others attach to a person at birth, according to their body
4. Cisgendered: when a person’s gender identity matches the body they are born with
5. Transgendered: when a person’s gender identity does not match the body they are born with
6. Gender-transgression: when a person’s gender expression takes a form that bends or goes beyond mainstream society’s expectations

            Historically, in the Bugis society of Indonesia, there have been three basic forms a person’s gender identity can take. Two are equivalent to the only genders we give proper consideration in the west, the cisgendered male and female, and the other is much more difficult to define. They are the Bissu: spiritual leaders whose gender is ambiguous and contains elements of male and female practices. Historical records dating as far back as the 1500s give accounts of biosex males and females who, as Bissu, played crucial roles officiating royal ceremonies, advising the military and healing the sick[1].
            These people achieved the highest possible social status, not in spite of their gender-transgression, but because of it. This is because their spiritual function – which was essential to the wellbeing of the whole community – depended on them exhibiting signs of both the sexes, and not belonging to either. The Bissu in Bugis origin narratives descended to earth along with deities and were instrumental in creating life[2]. This is typical of Southeast Asian cosmologies in the early modern period, which commonly featured sacred gender dualities and deities who combined or switched genders, demonstrating worldviews in which the two sexes have distinct characteristics but spiritual beings can nevertheless transcend these boundaries[3]. In the case of pre-colonial Bugis society, the two sexes of humans on earth were understood as a complementary duality, which must be occasionally recombined to maintain the order and wellbeing of the world. Only Bissu, through their dynamic combination of male and female elements, had the power to achieve this.
In contemporary society, the Bugis acknowledge five genders: the three already mentioned, plus calalai (biosex females who perform the social roles of males) and calabai (biosex males who perform the social roles of females). It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing this as some kind of straightforward progression of the society’s ancient beliefs to encompass other kinds of gender transgression, but of course, the reality resists that kind of simplicity. When I started my research, much of what I read suggested that these fives genders coexist harmoniously and without controversy, and I wanted to believe that. But what I’ve discovered since then is still fascinating, and hopeful, even without being the perfect model of gender-tolerance that I wanted it to be.
In reality, of course, the Bugis have a variety of responses to gender-bending people and practices. The Bissu are still held in high regard, but not all people who transgress or deny their assigned gender are awarded this status – it is now entirely inaccessible to biosex females, and the alternative identities of gender-transgressors (calalai and calabai) are complicated, frequently persecuted existences. The old wife-and-mother role is the only universally approved female lifestyle, and correspondingly, men (excluding the limited few who become bissu) are expected to be the primary breadwinners and the guardians of a family’s purity and morality[4]. Most of the people who challenge normative gender roles are now breaching a social code, rather than transcending it. Contemporary Bugis society is a conflicted space which spiritually insists that some carefully selected individuals transgress gender, and demands that everyone else sticks to their assigned roles, or risk causing their family siri (a kind of all-encompassing shame that defies English translation).
The interesting question, then, is what occurred in Bugis society to create this kind of change. The earliest literature on calabai and calalai is only about two centuries old, most of it much more recent. The catalysts causing these identities to emerge took gradual form throughout the 700 or so years before this, in two unrelated but (in this case at least) similarly destructive ideologies: Islam, and Dutch patriarchy. The spread of Islam through Indonesia begun around the end of the thirteenth century, coming first from Arab Muslim traders and rapidly expanding as local rulers and royalty began to adopt the religion, inspiring the conversion of the population at large[5]. The beliefs that took hold were mainly of the Sufi tradition, which allowed room for ritual spiritualists such as the Bissu and the continuing acknowledgement of a spiritual world[6]. However, Islam also brought radically different perspectives on the sexes, drastically changing the lives of Indonesian women. Islamic texts and traditions denied women the right to become clerics, robbing them of their former access to spiritual authority, and causing the disappearance of female-bodied Bissu. Masculinity began to be associated with strength and reason, and femininity with human weakness, passion and motherhood[7]. In a fairly short period of time, the legitimate roles available to women were severely contracted, with female envoys, inter-island traders, and spiritual leaders all but vanishing.
As well as limiting the lives of women, the spread of Islam also caused changes in the attitudes towards gender transgression and the nature of the transgression that occurred. Some scholars have rationalized the appearance of calalai as a response to the Islamic tradition, which provided no alternative model of womanhood, causing biosex females to turn instead to notions of masculinity for self-definition[8]. Calalai typically dress in styles associated with men, wear their hair short, and have relationships with cisgendered females. However, although they appear as men and act as men, there is no confusion as to what they actually are – calalai understand that with their female bodies, they will never be awarded the prestige of being a ‘real man’, nor the honour of being a mother. Bugis society treats them with a peculiar mix of disregard and trust: unlike cisgendered males, calalai are allowed to spend time alone with their female partners while still unmarried, and unlike cisgendered females, they are allowed to go out alone at night (although it is not clear if this is because it is believed that their appearance will keep them safer than normative women, or because their welfare isn’t considered important).[9]
Around the same time as all this was occurring, Dutch colonists were reinforcing these new attitudes with their culture of masculinity and patriarchy. Dutch literature sought to ensure that the Dutch emigrant woman fully fulfilled her role as wife and mother, and Dutch women passed this on to their native servants[10]. The Netherlands were particularly harsh in their treatment of cross-dressing and homosexuality, particularly that of women. The Dutch laid the foundations for the legal system and political structure of post-colonial Indonesia, and their prejudices permeated into these structures[11].
Dutch culture and Islam are often thought of as opposing forces in Southeast Asia, but they have elements in common, particularly their belief in gender as an innate, unchanging human characteristic. Although these new beliefs did not completely obliterate pre-modern Bugis cosmology (as evidenced by the continued presence of Bissu, amongst other things), they did cause a shift in the way most Bugis people understood their own gender and others’. Because of the constant reiteration of the idea that a person’s gender was determined at birth with no room for variation, the calalai and calabai were stigmatized as immoral, deviant and fake. The ideas of gender and gender transgression were recoded so that this kind of behavior was (in most cases) not a positive attribute but an improper act of imitation. Most calalai and calabai do not see a connection between their lives and those of ancient Bissu. The female Bissu has been all but forgotten. Interestingly, those interviewed do often hold fate (kodrat) or god’s will responsible for their gender identity, but even so, they do not generally regard it as a good thing[12].
What all of this shows us is the incredible power of religion and ideology on the ways we form and understand our identities. When the dominant belief system in Indonesia celebrated both male and female gender transgressors, both sexes expressed gender ambiguity and found an accepting space to do so. When this belief changed, and the amount of people who could become Bissu was drastically constricted, gender transgressors found new identities based in the stereotypical traits of the opposite gender.
It’s impossible to tell what tracks our lives might have taken if we’d been born in Bugis society, or any of the dozens of other cultures which see gender through something other than the two-pronged fork model of the west, but that’s not to say it’s not an interesting question. Examining alternative models to the ones we grow up in is an important (and easy) way to expand our understanding of how these kinds of ideas develop, and gives us a chance to see beyond them.

For further reading on the Bugis, check out the footnotes below. Please leave any questions, comments or suggestions for future posts in the comments, and tune in next week for more. :)

[1] Blackwood, Evelyn. "Gender Transgression in Colonial and Postcolonial Indonesia." The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 64, no.4 (2005). P.853
[2] Graham, Sharyn. “It’s like one of those puzzles: Conceptualising gender among Bugis.” Journal Of Gender Studies, Vol. 13, no. 2, (2004). P.107
[3] Blackwood, p.858
[4] Graham, Sharyn. “Negotiating Gender: Calalai in Bugis Society.” Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context. Is. 6, (2001)
[5] "Islam in Indonesia." Wikipedia. Accessed August 18th, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Indonesia.
[6] Blackwood, p.860
[7] Blackwood, p.862
[8] Graham, “Negotiating Gender”
[9] Graham, Negotiating Gender
[10] Blackwood, p.864
[11] Blackwood, p.864
[12] Graham, Negotiating Gender


  1. Super! Wish I could write like you, and you do it recreationally too! Made me feel informed :) UGH I have to do the super hard code thingy to post this.

  2. You said that this would be fun to read, and you delivered! The effect of Islam hadn't even crossed my mind, yet makes so much more sense than changing perspectives on gender being entirely colonial-era.

    Interesting how women in Bugis society had access to a wide range of roles and lost those too, and the potential link between the Dutch-influenced legal system and and current entrenched gender norms is an ponderous nugget.

    The speculation about how calalai emerged as a way to define oneself is also really intriguing (plus some amazing double standards there, it would seem!).

    How widespread is Bugis society/practice in Indonesia, past and present?

    Oh, and yeah: Go the referencing!

  3. Thanks for your comment dude! Islam is very prevalent in Indonesia as it turns out. As in the rest of the world, popular ideologies have an incredible influence on the development of identities.

    The Buginese people are the largest of three ethnic groups in the Southwestern province of Sulawesi, which is the third largest island of Indonesia. According to wikipedia there are about 6 million Buginese people spread out through Indonesia and other Asian locations.