Women’s novel: A reflection of gender inequality in Colonial Indonesia

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

If a novel is a mirror of society, the stories from female novelists in colonial Indonesia were nothing less than a perfect reflection of how women lived up to the expectation of the world those days.

In the recent seminar at NCCU under the topic “Introducing Southeast Asian (media) Studies: From Novels in the 20th Century to New Media in the 21st Century”, Dr Elizabeth Chandra (second to the left), Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies from University of California, Berkeley, shed light on Indonesian women's writings in the age of The Netherlands indies.

Based on the research of women authors in this generation, Dr. Elizabeth dated back to the rise of modern literature that was centered around the Chinese diaspora in the mid-1900s.

The outnumbered Chinese offspring which was five-time larger than the Dutch and the European migrants had made Chinese publishers the real influencer of the past. Not only the size did matter, but the characteristic of the community that had been assimilated to local culture and modern society played an integral role in this blossoming.

Chinese diaspora who inhibited concentratively in the urban areas were the second and third generation migrating to Indonesia. The Malay language has been the lingua franca in daily life. Moreover, students in the self-subsidiary school, both boys and girls, also have chances to study various languages such as Mandarin, Dutch and English as well.

The more window of language widely opened, the more community reached for the various genres from the western world. Translations from novels in French, German, Swedish or Russia language weren’t uncommon back then.

But to pinpoint the rising, it was worth to mention the mindset of the colonial government which doesn’t set Chinese as major threats of stability because, according to the authority’s belief, they lacked political aspiration. The overlook from the government guarantees the freedom of publishers to some extent.

Equality in education for all genders didn’t bring up the egalitarian status for females in the first place. While social mobility for boys depended on higher education which could lure a better-paid job, but education for girls was not the resource society expected them to require. Marriage into the wealthy family was rather the leverage for young women. Being someone’s wife is considered as an elevator to lift them from poorness to prosperity.

The storyline of modern novels which have female protagonist all reflects that ideology, the fate of young women well-groomed in the European-style school education mostly ended up in tragic. Those writings signaled that freedom is too dangerous for girls.

When stepped out from the story to explore the writers' community within the 1890s-1940s, only 50 female writers were found. It was 16 times less than 800 male novelists. Moreover, the storytelling from the pen of female hadn’t yet taken readers beyond the territory of romantic love as male authors wrote.

To gain a strong foundation of leadership, female writers usually use the feminine meaning name as a pseudonym.

“Beautiful and charming names such as Rose, Jasmine and another kind of flowers are the top choices for women and men authors who wish to pursue female readers. For men writers, it wasn’t necessary to conceal the identity even though they’re using a feminine pen name, unlike women who usually hide the identity behind the neutral name or use the abbreviation. The same way as J.K. Rowling, the famous author of Harry Potter saga did today.” said Dr. Elizabeth.

The characteristic of novels from female writers between the 1920s-30s were indistinguishable from stories written by men. The conventional line of tragic heroines who follow their heart or passion mostly faced the tragic end, even though a glimpse of sympathy were shown but the pessimistic tone always prevailed. The outcome in the form of novels confirms gender inequality in that era.

Until the 1930s onward, the viewpoint of women protagonists turned to the newer territory. Female novelists touched more on female-centered viewpoints, dared to share the clearer sense of self-fulfillment, denied being the accessory to men’s happiness. Some works portrayed critical viewpoints towards female seclusion, polygamy, arranged marriage, domesticity, lack of career, and overall inequality.

Dahlia (a.k.a. Tan Lam Nio), a novelist who lived between 1909-1932, was one of the most standout women in the male-dominated literature's world. She emerged with an exceptionally distinct female voice and woman-centered viewpoint. All five novels and short stories are popular among women readers while they stood up and challenge the gender norms in the novels written by her predecessors.

Dahlia’s female leading characters were remarkable heroines who usually equipped with intelligence, confidence and shining up the story with an outspoken and independent style, such as Nora, a young girl who refused the arranged marriage as she degraded this activity as the economic transaction for family.

“Nora’s character is assertive, confident. She dared to takes initiative, like the way she is the first to approach a boy whom she fell for. This story emphasized the personal happiness of women over parent’s wish. Freedom was women’s rights and school education was the ultimate resource”.

At the end of session, Dr. Elizabeth said that following Dahlia, in the second half of the twentieth century, more female journalists and activists became a novelist who helped to introduce the new prototype of the female protagonist. The fate of girls in these stories was no longer crushed by modernity but the modernity attribute to the changing of women’s role in society.

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