71 Years On: The Crossroads of Identity?

It started off years ago as Independence Day lunch with some diplomat friends; they’d just returned from State Palace for the ceremony, I’d just finished watching it on TV. Since they’d be in formalwear, I’d dress accordingly in variations of red-white or traditional costume. The diplomats have left but I try to preserve the ritual with my Indonesian pals.

Not always successfully.

I discovered that, curiously, some Indonesians own no traditional attire including the very popular kebaya, or even a contemporary piece of batik and tenun. Curious, since during my short tenure in Manila most locals could tell me of their precious barong (embroidered male shirt) and terno (poufy-sleeved white dress). Curious, since during my own years overseas I always kept a set of traditional garb just in case I had to attend an event representing Indonesia.

Curious, but certainly not fair nor conclusive on the questions of one’s claimed identity, sense of pride or, let alone, patriotic loyalty.

Yet for millennia wardrobe has been one of the most common tools of identity, a showcase for the mindset inside. Even the mere elements can serve as identifiers, like the hard-to-obtain purple dye worn by European loyalty in Middle Ages, or the low hair-knot only sported by a geisha who’d had her mizuage back in the century when the profession wasn’t deemed blatant prostitution. The Divergent movie series offers perhaps the best illustrations on how styles and colors worn by a group elucidate its identity and purpose.

Since  the 18th anniversary of Reformasi in May I’ve been citing here on my column how in certain matters like religion Indonesia has ironically gone more orthodox since. While in the past female Muslim Indonesians who chose to cover-up would adopt a shawl similar to what the late Benazir Bhutto wore, recently the headscarves have become so massive they sometime cover the face. Little girls not yet menstruating are forced to cover up, something that I didn’t even see in Saudi Arabia both times I made umrah pilgrimage. It’s not only the wardrobe, but also the unprecedented levels of preachy attitude and social pressure put on others to follow suit from friends, relatives, colleagues or random celebrities on TV.

Religious freedom is paramount to human rights, which I support, yet I hate it that now I am often made feeling like I wasn’t entirely “wearing” my identity. I’ve lately found myself looking around at gatherings and noticing how Indonesia wasn’t this conformist just 10 years ago; once gasping to realize that Dubai downtown malls on weekends would look and feel more relaxed than the particular vicinity I was in. I’m aware of how bigoted my feelings can sound, which is the worst feeling of all, so I suppress them most of the times.

But the self-restraint broke earlier this week upon watching the newly-restored Tiga Dara movie from Indonesia’s legendary director the late Usmar Ismail. Made in 1956, it showed three sisters playfully exploring romance, eschewing the idea of marriage at the age of twenty-nine, and dancing gleefully with suitors. The parties were full of jazz and swing music, and at one particular outdoor mixer swimsuits were donned by both sexes.

While throughout the movie the eldest was shown in traditional kebaya, her sisters were in sleeveless sundresses and pedal-pushers—one of them was tastefully shot from the back getting undressed, throwing her bra over the bedpost. A hint of Islamic element only came in the form of Malay quartet singing melodiously to young men and women in long tunic over batik with shawl draped simply over the girls’ shoulder, dancing in pair to the tunes.

This lighter and more jovial atmosphere contrasts badly from the countless preaching on heaven and hell drummed up in current Indonesian movies and daytime soaps, or how the recent marriage of a famous preacher’s 17-year-old son was packaged as a glorious poster for teenage marriage. Heck, 60 years ago the Tiga Dara sisters were already laughing at their grandma for having to marry at seventeen, now you urge the sisters’ grandkids to return marrying at seventeen? Am I living in Twilight Zone?

I don’t know when, where, or why the liberated 1956 Indonesia turn into the piety-hysteria 2016 Indonesia. Is it true that one of the things 1998 Reformasi freed from Soeharto’s 32-year oppression was conservatism? Or perhaps the other identity options for the past 7 decades, traditional or modern alike, was sincerely owned up to, no matter how adorably movies like Tiga Dara have immortalized them? I mean, back to my story above, some Indonesians don’t even think of traditional attire as part of their repertoire, anyway.

Maybe, in the matter of identity expression, we are at crossroads. We don’t know where we come from or what we want to be, so we cling to the identity that seems safer or more rewarding in the long term—carried over to the next life, even.

Or maybe, as I don’t have enough anthropology education in me, it is I who am at the crossroads of understanding my own country folks. So before my head cracks in confusion, I’ll head to Gandaria City, where a festival of traditional textiles beyond batiks is being held by Fimela group for the 71st Independence Day. At least among those colorful beauties, I always find a piece of my identity.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/08/20/urban-chat-71-years-the-crossroads-identity.html

This entry was posted in Art & Culture, Fashion, History, Life Bites, Religion, Society, UrbanChat. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>