Covering Up: How One Tradition is Changing in Bali

A Bali Times Special Report

By staff reporters and correspondents

GIANYAR ~ The centuries-old tradition of semi-nakedness among women in Bali’s villages is fast drawing to a close as more modest younger generations shun the practice, an expert and interviewiees said.

The habit of Balinese women not wearing any upper clothing, which has been around for centuries, according to I Gede Sura, an ancient Javanese and Sanskrit lecturer at the Hindu University of Indonesia in Denpasar, has been dying out as more people are being exposed to Western culture.

“Today, people do not see any tradition in the habit. Until the independence of the country (in 1945), all women in Bali used to practice the habit of semi-nakedness. They never wore upper clothing, underwear or even shoes or sandles,” he told The Bali Times.

“I witnessed it myself in the early 1950s, and the reason was very simple: back then, people were very poor; there was no money to buy clothes,” said Sura, adding that “it was normal for women to be semi-naked in the house, nieghborhood and streams.”

Women who still practice the habit today are much more conservative with their semi-nakedness, he said.

“Balinese women used to only wear shirts when visiting other villages, markets and temples in order to meet the appropriate dress code, while in their own villages they would be topless. Today, women confine their semi-nakedness to private surroundings and familiar people.”

However, with the rise of Western influences on younger generations, the habit is begining to be seen as innapropriate, according to I Made Suadnyana, a community leader in Pejeng Kawan village in Gianyar.

“I see the habit of semi-nakedness as a problem. These women are giving the Balinese people a bad image,” he told The Times.

Nyoman Artawati, a Balinese woman whose mother practices semi-nakedness, agrees that it’s inappropriate for women to be topless in public but doesn’t see a problem with it in private.

“As far as I’m concerned, if my mother want’s to be semi-nude at home, that’s fine – as long as she doesn’t offend anyone. It’s an old tradition that many women do. It’s normal in Bali.”

Ni Ketut Renteb, an 80-year-old woman from Sindhu Kelod village in Sanur, told The Times that she is always semi-naked at home and only wears a shirt if she goes out in public or is expecting guests.

“I don’t feel comfortable wearing shirts. I only wear one if I have to. When I was young, none of the women wore shirts. But it’s different now – all the young people wear shirts, and I’m too shy to be toppless outside of my home.”

Her grandson, I Made Budiartama told The Times that he doesn’t mind if his grandmother wants to be semi-naked at home and around family.

“I understand and appreciate my grandmother’s habit and tradition, as long as she understands the new traditon of always wearing a shirt in public,” he said.

Not all women who practice semi-nudeness are as concerned about when and where they are toppless, however.

Ninety-year-old Lasmi, from the village of Sekartaji in Tabanan, is half-naked all time, no matter where she is, she said, adding that the only time she covers up is when the weather becomes chilly.

“I don’t care what other people think about me. I live alone and no one cares for me, so I do what I want,” she said.

A relation, Ni Nyoman Tri Suayanti, said most if not all people understood that such women were part of Bali’s ancient culture.

“I understand her habit of being semi-naked. It’s an old tradition in Bali and she’s an old woman. Men don’t look at her like they would a younger semi-naked woman,” she said.

That view is echoed by many tourists, including Italian Roberta Trioli: “There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s not a bad tradion. I don’t think there’s anything scandelous about it and it only shows that the Balinese are very open-minded people,” he said.

If semi-nakedness is one aspect of Bali’s rich culture, so too is public bathing in streams, which are also used to wash clothes and as toilets.

Ni Komang Reni is a 25-year-old mother of one and was washing and bathing at a stream in Gianyar Regency as she spoke to a Times reporter. She said that even though she has toilet and other facilities at her house, she prefers to come to the stream – primarily for reasons of economy.

“I often come here to wash clothes and have a bath … it’s easy to get here on my motorbike and I bring a lot of clothes with me. The only bad thing is that because the stream is beside the village road, people can see you as they go by on their motorbikes.

“But by coming here, the cost of water at home can be reduced,” she said.

Another bathing mother, Jero Putu, 26 and also with one child, said she felt safe in the company of others.

“I like coming to this stream – even though I can do everything I do here at home – because it’s a good place to wash clothes, the surrounding scenery is nice and there are a lot of people, so it’s safe.”

Meanwhile, as for Bali’s elderly, topless women, lecturer Sura said it was doubtful they would give up their tradition.

“They don’t want to stop – it’s not that they don’t understand the current culture; they’re aware of it and respect it. They just don’t want to abandon a tradition they have been practicing their entire lives.”

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