By Vyt Karazija
My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9.30am but her face already shows more than the normal strain of the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.
“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners, are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances but for a Balinese woman it’s even more taxing at this time of the year.
“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she didn’t finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3.30am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.
I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night…”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”
It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.
Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the homemakers, too. In most cases they are responsible for the provision and preparation of food and in fact for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.
What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming homemaking and religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening rest period doing her ceremonial duties. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.
And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in fairness, some are working at jobs, too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many also get to relax during their jobs, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping in those endless male-bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous minimarts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional women’s duties after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by tradition, and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.
So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes,” she says quickly. “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.
She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women; it is what we have to do…” There is an unspoken “but” at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances and about fairness.
She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in reincarnation?” I tell her I don’t.
“Well, I do,” she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think next time I want to come back as a man.”