I recently read an article about how some gay men, feeling justified by the fact that they have no sexual attraction to women, think that they are allowed to touch women without their consent. The article went on to talk about the concept of who owns a woman’s body and questions of privilege and entitlement. While it raised several interesting points, the thought that really struck me was that our culture is permeated with the idea that women don’t really have ownership over their bodies. I started wondering about this idea of an exception because a man is gay. What other exceptions are taken for granted?
I immediately flashed back to a costume fitting spring semester of my senior year at Oberlin. I spent most of my time at Oberlin unconnected with the drama department, but by my final year I’d finally managed to work my way into the musical theater scene, at least enough to be playing in a pit orchestra. For this particular show they wanted the orchestra onstage, and so I got to wander around until I found the costume workshop.
The person who fitted me was a man. He gave me a dress and character shoes, directed me to a changing room, and looked me over once I returned. I can’t remember if he touched me. I can’t remember if he took measurements. None of that even registered, because in my head, as the person in charge of my costume, he had the right to do whatever he wanted to my body in order to make the costume look good.
Was that a right I should have given him? Was that a right I should at least have considered before granting?
Neither thought had even occurred to me.
In truth, I’ve never really been a fan of touching. When I was younger, I didn’t relish the idea of hugging and kissing my relatives. When I got older, I found myself analyzing social situations, trying to predict and prepare for possible hugs so that I wouldn’t appear socially inept. Physical contact was never really something I sought out on my own.
Now, contrast that with the fact that I dance. Dance, by definition, is a physical act, a presentation of the body. Moreover, in a dance class, a good amount of the teaching occurs through physical touch: tapping an arm higher or lower, fixing the angle of a head. And then there’s the whole costume thing.
Does the very act of participating in dance mean that I’ve given up ownership of my body?
Now that I think about it, in some ways all rules are off once I step inside a dressing room. I’ve stripped naked with only a piano partially blocking me from the rest of the room. In my head, there are a lot more things to worry about right before a performance. As my dance teacher once said, we’re all theater people. We’re worried more about the show and less about finding some private place to change. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s not good, maybe deciding to perform is giving your tacit permission for all of this. I don’t know and you probably want to know how this relates to Indonesia.
The same morning that I read the article, as with every morning when I teach, I got on my motorbike and drove to campus. The streets tend to pass by me in a haze of familiarity. The bridge, the one corner where everyone drives crazily, the one speed bump that used to be awful but that they recently fixed. This particular morning, though, I noticed two men as they flashed by me. There was nothing remarkable about them—standard Javanese faces, nothing distinguishing. I wouldn’t be able to pick them out from a crowd.
What I did recognize, though, was that I didn’t trust them.
One of my friends once said to me, “I always ask foreigners what they like about Indonesia. Tell me what you don’t like.”
I launched into a speech—half in English and half in Indonesian, with liberal pauses for me to repeat what I’d said in one language in the other—that focused mainly on interactions with men. When you’re foreign, people already have preconceived notions about you. Men feel free to treat foreign women differently than they would Indonesian women.
“How?” my friends asked.
They’re probably just trying to be friendly. They want to know more about you.
But what about the touching?
One of my friends pointed out that she touches me.
I told her she was right, but what if you’re talking to a stranger? What if he’s a man?
This was harder for my friends to grasp, probably because of our ever-present language barrier and also probably because they’ve never experienced this for themselves. My one friend, however, did understand and did agree that if someone treated her that way she would think it was weird.
After we talked about men, they wanted to know what else I didn’t like about Indonesia, but it was hard for me to think of anything else. The fact that, every time I see a man, I distrust him before I trust him tends to outshine everything else.
Now, I know this isn’t fair of me. I know that most men in Indonesia aren’t out to disrespect me or violate my person. There are several Indonesian men who I trust.
That said, I’m living in a foreign country. I can communicate, but lots of things—words, whole sentences, context—can fly right by me. I’m vulnerable. That’s why I’m afraid whenever I interact with a man I don’t know, even if it’s just in passing him on the street. He represents the possibility of a good deal of hurt because of this idea that, in some way, foreign women don’t have complete ownership of their bodies. That he has a right to touch her simply because of where she comes from.
Of course, there are also questions of body ownership in an Islamic context. Who owns a Muslim woman’s body? Her or her husband? What about wearing a headscarf? Why does a woman do that? Whose decision is it really? At this time, I don’t feel qualified to speak on these issues at all.
In all honesty, I barely feel qualified to talk about what it’s like to be a foreigner in Indonesia, because I’m living and experiencing in such a specific space. All I can really talk about is how I act and how I feel, which is distant and wary until I’m given a reason not to be.
Last week, I went with my dance teacher to a wayang wong rehearsal. She parked the motorbike, we took off our helmets, and then I followed her around as she greeted people and introduced me. Somewhat to my surprise, despite the fact that she was speaking Javanese, I was able to understand a good deal of what she was saying and what people’s responses were. The first introduction went something like this:
Her (shaking people’s hands): This is my dance student.
Me (smiling a little and shaking people’s hands): Zoë.
One of her friends: Where’s she from?1
Her: Just ask her. She can speak Javanese.
One of her friends: She can? (to me) Where are you from?
Me (still smiling politely): The US.
I then attempted to escape from the situation and sit down by myself as quickly as possible. Partially, this was due to the fact that I don’t like meeting new people in general. Partially this was also due to the fact that I don’t like meeting new Indonesian men. And the vast majority of the people at the rehearsal were men.
But, once I’d settled myself against a pillar at the front of the rehearsal space, tucked up against a large potted plant, I felt a certain pang. My dance teacher fell easily into rehearsing, marking a dance with one of her friends, joking around with someone else. Of course, that’s also the comfort that comes from having friends, but even so, to have that level of comfort around guys? I’d almost forgotten what that feels like.
So what’s my point here? That gender relations are complicated? That cultural differences always exist? That stereotypes and preconceptions are bad? That everyone should have ownership over their own body? Yes, all of that, all of those things that a good Oberlin student knows.
But in the end, after all of the thinking, I’m left with this:
Flash back to almost a year ago. I’m still new at dance, still bad at talking, still awkwardly sitting on the edges of things trying to follow everyone else’s lead. The group just got a new dance teacher to teach the boys how to dance. Because I’m tired of being slow and graceful, because it’s better than sitting around confused, because if I’m going to learn to dance I might as well learn everything, I join in.
I’m no good, a parody in the back trying to copy movements that I don’t understand. Nevertheless, it’s fun, a different sort of challenge, new sets of motions.
The teacher goes around, correcting people, asking each of the boys to do the combination individually. Then he gets to me.
Clumsily, I go through the movements.
He reaches in to correct me, but before he touches my arm he says, “Sorry,” and he meets my eyes to make sure this is okay.
1My dance teacher is actually really good about answering this question. She quite frequently says that I’m her friend from UGM, which is a nice way to dodge the question.