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Women and Mediation in Indonesia.

This collection of 14 essays examines sociological, anthropological and historical aspects of women and mediation. Mediation studies, which developed during the 1960s and 70s, have tended to concentrate on the role of men, and a book dealing with women in this role is long overdue. It is especially important now, as scholars studying the cultures of developing societies are beginning to understand how central many female roles are to the functioning of that society. It also becomes apparent from some of these papers that many of the changes taking place in Indonesian society have undermined and eroded some of these traditional mediating roles.

The term "mediator" has been used in sociology and anthropology in the sense of a broker or middleman, they become the hinges of certain relationships. Some authors prefer to draw a distinction between a mediator and broker, arguing that the broker profits by their mediation. More generally, mediation involves the mediator making use of particular assets, be they knowledge, connections, money or power. The particular issues dealt with in the volume may be divided into three categories: theoretical concerns, brokerage in economic and social life, and mediation in the cultural domain, between the human and supra-human world, between micro and macro-cosmos.

All these essays are illuminating, and add to our knowledge concerning the diverse roles played by women throughout Indonesia. However, the linking theme of these roles, that of mediation, sometimes appears to be applied too liberally. It could, reading some of these papers, be argued that any role, male or female, involves some kind of mediation, and ultimately one is forced to ask whether the concept is really a useful one for understanding some of these roles.

This question appears to be partially raised by Benda-Beckman in her article "Joint Brokerage of Spouses on Islamic Ambon". She examines the neglected category of married couples acting as joint brokers. Through a series of personal networks they provide the people in their village with access to schooling and healthcare in the island's capital, and also provide government officials and traders access to the villagers and their products. However, Benda-Beckman also attempts to clear up the confusion that she argues exists, concerning mediation, drawing our attention to the fact that there are important differences between patronage, brokerage and mediation. She discusses some of the more important theories and definitions, and using her field research, demonstrates how they are inadequate. She argues that many of the definitions are insufficient, primarily because they are concerned with dyadic relationships between a person or group in need of resources, and a person or group who controls the resources. Benda-Beckman concludes that what is ultimately important are "triadic relationships and indirect linkages, not ... dyadic relationships and direct links". Furthermore, the mediator who is the hinge in this triadic relationship, acts not only on their own behalf, though they invariably have some interest, but on behalf of the people between whom they mediate. This triadic relationship involves the double transmission of information, values and messages between the client and mediator, and mediator and someone else.

If this traidic relationship is necessary, then one questions the place of de Vries' excellent paper on West Dani women in mediating the acceptance of a Western cultural alternative. In traditional West Dani society all women, and only women, could be accused of sorcery, and only men could punish them, usually by death. Low sweet potato yields were blamed on women's sorcery and their being bad producers, rather than on environmental factors or, dare one suggest it, the laziness of the men. A good sweet potato crop was necessary to feed the pigs that represented a man's prestige. When missionaries and indeed anthropologists arrived, they found that the women were receptive to a cultural alternative that could put an end to their wretched position. Hence the women took to growing new vegetables that were flown to the coast for sale, and the money the women earned could be used to purchase goods that could be exchanged for pigs. I would argue that the issue involved had little to do with mediation, but with economic astuteness. The women saw a way out of their predicament and seized the opportunity. This point, however, does not detract from the validity or interest of de Vries' paper.

Similarly Marcoe's discussion of the mediating role of the female preachers or muballigah of West Java, while demonstrating that she communicates religious ideas about the hereafter, everyday life, and social, cultural, economic and even political aspects based upon Islamic teachings to the women in her audience, does not appear to mediate ideas, questions or problems back to any higher religious authority. It could be argued that far from acting as a two way channel of information, the muballigah have become a mouthpiece encouraging women to accept the status quo. This becomes more apparent when one looks at Marcoe's discussion of the sermons given by these women. The information being "mediated" is aimed at reminding the women of their duties towards their husbands rather than informing them of their rights under Islamic law.

Smyth also finds current concepts of female mediation inadequate as they generally draw on ideas connected to concepts of role and power. Consequently they attach to mediation the meaning of conflict management and conflict resolution. Women's mediating activities, furthermore, are relegated exclusively to the sphere of informal, private exchanges, and consequently are presumed to be an alternative to formal power and an alternative to participation in economic activities. They place women in the background as passive actors. Smyth's solution to this problem is to concentrate on what women do, not on the parties connected by their activities. She illustrates her point by looking at the practical activities by which Sundanese women transmit resources such as skills, and keep alive social relations essential to the village economy. By adopting this approach she successfully highlights the active part that women play in economic and social exchanges.

The second group of papers looks at mediation in the cultural domain. The first of these, written by Tati Krisnawati and Artien Utrecht, examines the role of female traders in northwest Lombok. They describe the different functions of women within the chain of trading - as peddlers, intermediaries, market traders, shopkeepers and careers - and how different types of trader interact with each other. It becomes apparent that the women who engage in small-scale trade do so out of economic necessity, as it provides them with a modest personal profit, and at the same time they act as important economic mediators between producers and consumers in isolated, inland villages and the market. In spite of their efforts, the women are unable to break out of a vicious circle of low income and lack of capital. The authors conclude by pointing out that similar studies in Java have indicated that the pattern of economic mediation will change, and that further research is necessary in Lombok to determine how the traders will adapt, and the implications of the changes for the economic and social power of the women. Again, it is not adequately demonstrated that the roles of the women should be analysed in terms of mediation. Like the West Dani women, they are making use of economic opportunities to survive.

Grijns has discovered that contrary to belief, West Javanese labour brokers or mandors may be women in a few cases. However she argues that the restructuring of the plantation sector has narrowed the scope for female workers, in effect barring them from mediating tasks. She examines the roles of five female mandors operating on a tea estate, and shows how there are some obstacles preventing them from being as effective as men. Their lack of education, the limited number of jobs they can do on an estate, their lack of authority over men, are all factors that work against them. Here we see an argument supporting Smyth's claim concerning power. However, in this case the women lack the "power" to mediate effectively. Grijns suggests that to be effective mediators, the mandors must have a good knowledge of those working under them, which they do, and of management, which they don't. The paradox is that with increasing state influence, bureaucratisation, and the standardization of labour relations, the obstacles become greater for women because of their traditional handicaps. This paper demonstrates clearly how the drive for efficiency and modernization invariably exclude women and weakens their position. By way of contrast the Javanese "factory daughters" described by Wolf appear to gain some prestige in their mediating roles. They mediate between their rural, semi-proletarian families and capitalist factories. However, although they provide their families with much needed cash, they also mediate subsidization of the factories by their families. Families may benefit from their daughters' wages, but these same low wages also render them dependent upon their families who subsidise their labour and thereby also capitalism. Both these examples are concerned with the role of women in the workforce. There is a case for arguing that female mandors play a mediating role, albeit from a weak position, but Wolf's factory women, far from mediating between their proletarian families and capitalist factories, are simply being exploited.

The place of mediation takes a firmer footing in the last group of papers which, generally speaking, consider more traditional roles. Hence we find the educated Toba Batak women in van Bemmelen's paper mediating between clans. Once they were married the women acted as mediators, ensuring the flow of blessings from bride-givers to bride-takers, and ensuring that the family of origin could count on the necessary return gifts. She was valued by the bride-takers essentially because she mediated the social status of her bride-giving group to the bride-taking one. Well-educated brides became sought after when men became educated, the educated bride strengthening the clan's value, becoming better mediators on behalf of the two groups.

Niehof's paper considers the mediating role of the traditional birth attendant in her culturally defined role of helping women become mothers. More recently they have been enlisted by health and family planning programmes to mediate the improvement of health care for mothers and children. Another traditional mediating role is that of the dukun penganten, or wedding specialist, described by Puntowati. She mediates between the bride and supernatural forces during the bride's transition from puberty to adulthood. She points out though, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the dukun penganten to maintain her role as mediator due to the increasing commercialisation of the making up of the bride.

The last two papers in this book form an interesting contrast. Taylor's discussion examines the female elite of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century VOC (Dutch East India Company) in Batavia (Jakarta). These women mediated between European male immigrants and the Asian population imported by the Dutch into the city, and between different Europeans. They acted as mediators in two important ways: culturally, by introducing European men to the language, customs, food etc; politically, within the European segment by bringing immigrant Dutch men into relationships with other European men. The women concerned were Eurasians, the legally recognized offspring of liaisons between elite European men serving the VOC, and Asian women. There were almost no European women in Batavia in this early period. These women mediated, not between European and Asian aristocratic families - for they were outcasts of Asian society - but among Dutch officials in Batavia's administration. Marriage, which linked European immigrants to local society and to each other, was the crucial institution in forming Batavia's colonial elite for it was through their membership by marriage of a European clan that men were able to compete for wealth and domination of the sources of power in VOC society.

In complete contrast, Locher-Scholten examines the position of the nyai or "housekeepers" in colonial Deli during the nineteenth century. Unlike the previous example, these women could not act as mediators between European and Asian culture. Their low status, lack of education, and the racist and sexist manner with which these women were treated by their Dutch masters, made it impossible for them to act as transmitters of specific cultural knowledge, values and behaviour. What this paper demonstrates is that in order for an individual to mediate between groups they must, to a large extent, do so from a position of power and status.

Sian Jay University of Hull
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Author:Jay, Sian
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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