A Travel Journal: Observations on Gender in Bali, Indonensia
Part of why I find travelling to Asia so remarkable is simply because it differs in every possible way from the culture I am used to, from the culture I have grown up in. The climate, the landscape, the people, the language, and the mannerisms—it is enchanting to be immersed in such difference.
As I’ve grown up, and developed a more complete understanding of feminism, it’s hard to deny that other countries have ceased to make the same strides that my own country has in accepting females as equal to males. I often find it challenging to appreciate every nuance of a brand new culture, while recognizing its limitations, and yet not assuming that my own culture is somehow superior.
Stepping off the plane in Bali was no different. The thick, humid air immediately smothered me, as the unfamiliar Indonesian tongue sparked my attention. Bali is now, of course, a huge tourist attraction, especially for Australians (where I was travelling from), but my friends and I hoped to engage with local Balinese people as much as we could.
This trip was also different than anyone I’d been on, because in addition to capturing every inch of the space around me with my Canon camera, I had another agenda. I was going to observe how the women figure into Balinese society. What role do they play? Are they respected, treated as equals?
And, I was determined to make sure I wouldn’t miss anything I didn’t want to simply sit down at the end of the trip and recollect the bits and pieces of observations I could remember. So instead, I decided to write at least a sentence or two each day about what I noticed.
A chaotic ten-minute cab ride from our AirBnB, my friends and I arrive at the Oberoi Flea Market, where I am immediately taken back by its quietness. Dirt-tainted white tents lined the street, selling jewelry, elephant-printed pants, cheap patterned floral maxis.
The smell of incense flooded the thick, humid air, as women walked around carrying Hindu offerings to gently place at different parts of the market.
These offerings became a characteristic feature of Bali—you rarely walked more than a block without seeing the small, woven baskets filled with often with fruit and flower petals and topped with incense. And interestingly, only women ever carry these offerings.
Later on, I decide to do some research on these offerings, to gain a better understanding of the Hindu religion, as well as the clearly pivotal role women have. The official name for these offerings, I learned, is canag sari. Because the works of art are swept away each day and then replaced by brand new offerings each morning, they symbolize the impermanence of the world
I read tirelessly about these creations as acts of selflessness and dedication on behalf of the gods, but nowhere could find why only women are responsible for this ritual. It seems to be deeply entrenched in their society, following endless traditions, to the point where no one questions it.
On our 20-minute walk to breakfast, we loop through tight alleyways and past schools with crowds of girls and boys. There are no sidewalks, so we cling clumsily to the side of the road in an effort to avoid the whizzing motorcycles.
I pass two or three woman walking with heavier offerings balanced on their heads. It is unclear where they are going, or how long their walk is, but still, everywhere I look is an offering coupled with the smell of incense. Another frail woman stands beneath a palm tree, holding what looks like a large stick high in the air, and she is jabbing it into the tree to retrieve coconuts. It looks like a strenuous task, and she smiles at us as we walk by.
On our way home, I am delighted to see kids strapped to the back of their mom or dad on a motorcycle, backpacks in tow. One mother is sandwiched between one beautiful boy, nestled in her lap, and another hugging her back.
Later that day, we go to the Uluwatu Temple, a massive temple that sits overlooking the Indian Ocean. It was dedicated to protect Bali from evil sea spirits. As we approach the entrance, right before women are given colorful sarongs, I notice a large sign written in English forbidding women who are menstruating from entering a temple.
My initial reaction is almost one of humor- my friends and I look at each other, amused, as two of us actually have our periods. What on earth could that have to do with entering a temple— are they worried about us making a mess? And how would they ever know or enforce it?
Without saying a word out loud, we go in the temple, because it seems utterly ridiculous not to. As we bask in the pink glow of the Balinese sunset cloaking the majestic temple, with devilish monkeys scattering skittishly around us, I forget about the sign altogether.
The next day, we take an hour-long ferry to an island off of Bali called Nusa Penida, known for its sparkling turquoise water and extraordinarily picturesque views of a T-Rex shaped rock jutting into the water. The island together is far more underdeveloped than the city of Bali. There are hardly any stores— only people sitting on the side of the road, selling sculptures and carvings and fruit. Away from the touristy beaches, the roads are all unpaved, with enormous piles of dirt and debris, as well as half- built buildings that seem abandoned.
The driving etiquette is even more chaotic here. From the comfort of our air-conditioned van, we brush the shoulder of an unsuspecting woman walking barefoot, holding a large straw basket filled with sticks. She seems unfazed. Another older woman strolls along the road with palm leaves tied to her head.
Halfway through the day, our tour guide drops us off at a roadside café, I am once again bewildered by a sign planted in the middle of the restaurant that reads “Ladies during their period. Ladies with bikini. Lets respect others culture.” We are used to women being told to modify their clothes to be “appropriate,” but what does being on your period have to do with respect for culture?
Whose culture was I supposed to be respecting? How can having your period—a biological event utterly out of anyone’s control—be seen as a sign of disrespect? Why was a public place once again drawing attention only to women? Now, the sign is less amusing, and more disconcerting.
As we wait on the dock in the steaming heat for the ferry ride home, my gaze is fixated on a fishing boat parked at the shoreline. Three women are striding to and from the boat, over and over, holding large tanks of what appears to be gasoline. For the course of an hour, I am aggressively fanning myself from the stiff heat, and cannot fathom how these women are continuing to go back and forth with these heavy loads. Again, I am reminded that in Bali, physical labor is certainly not a masculine task. Women are capable of carrying anything that men are.
On our first day in Ubud, located in the Gianyar Regency of Bali, my friends and I walk to the town center’s art market, a famous setting in the movie “Eat Pray Love.” Unlike the calm Oberoi Flea Market from our very first day, this market is chaotic at best, even distressing. If you dare glance in the direction of an item, or, god forbid, make eye contact with one of the sellers, you’re stuck. We made this first mistake when trying to buy sarongs for a temple visit later that day.
The women are no less aggressive than the men when it comes to their loitering. Yet, the men will physically grab you if you show interest in an item and then start to walk away, as we learned when my friend politely told one man, “No, thank you,” to his pink and blue painted sarong. He yanked her arm not out of hostility, but of seeming desperation, to which she surrendered and overpaid.
I can’t say I was disappointed to leave the market a mere twenty minutes after we arrive, tired from focusing my eyes on the ground in front of me.
On our walk home, a large procession of people start to make their way down the center of the street, blocking traffic. The line is neatly divided by men and women, the women leading the way with tall, golden objects cloaked with bright yellow tassels balanced on their heads, and the men following behind playing various instruments.
It would be odd, I realize, if the women and men were interspersed—it becomes clear, in this moment, that gender is quite divisive here in Bali; it is less fluid than I am used to. If the men do stand near the women, it is to hold an umbrella over them, perhaps to protect them from the stifling heat.
Our goal for the next day is to travel to the picture-worthy Tegenungan Waterfall, an hour north of Bali, with a few spontaneous stops along the way. Upon arriving at the waterfall, we begin the steady trek down a steep flight of stairs.
A large sign pasted on the side of the outdoor stairwell immediately grabs my attention—it shows a photo of a cartoon man leaping unnaturally up three tall stairs. Each stair has a title—“Education”, followed by “Career,” “Love,” and “Marriage.” Above the drawing the sign reads, “Do not jump any step bc it is difficult to start again.” To the right of the drawing staircase is smaller letters spelling out, “Dear girls, don’t skip these steps.”
On the surface, the message is clear—don’t skip stairs, you’ll fall-- a cautionary piece of advice. And yet, the deeper message is also abundantly clear—it’s message about girls’ necessary duties and obligations in society; a reminder that girls are to progress through life in a definite, orderly fashion, and that diverging from this staircase of accomplishments is unacceptable.
Of course, they’re not urging girls to simply get married—they do in fact want girls to be educated, find jobs, and love before doing so. But the fact that it is necessary to announce this, to place this sign here, makes my head spin. After all, it is clear that only girls need to be reminded of this. It feels almost mocking to use the word “girls”, as if they clearly need this guidance.
A lot, it is clear, depends on whether you are a woman or a man. It seems as though signs are constantly reminding you that you are a woman, not a man, and vice versa.
It is not an easy task to notice others’ cultures without feeling frustration, or even contempt, when I learn that women are “forbidden” from entering temples when menstruating. And yet, I am trying to make sure that I am not judging, but rather feeling grateful for the rights I take for granted at home.
When patriarchal tradition and religion still figure so intricately into the customs in Bali, it doesn’t seem like anything is going to change anytime soon.
The ending to our day in Ubud is nothing short of remarkable. Our taxi driver takes us to see the Tirta Empul, a temple complex. Tirta Empul means “holy water spring,” and one can be found in the center of the temple. My friends and I have no expectations upon our arrival, mostly focused on maintaining an aura of admiration and respect for the Hindu rituals we might encounter.
The first thing I can see in the distance is a large crowd of young girls, maybe 8 to 10 years old, huddled together on a platform. They wear bright yellow sarongs, tied tightly around their chests, paired with delicate gold necklaces. Their headpieces are nothing short of extraordinary—straw crowns comprised of three layers of orange flowers fastened around their ears.
Their red Bindis’ match their cherry-red lipstick, and I am amused to see such an intricate design of pale pink eye shadow and jet-black eyeliner on such young girls.
By some miracle, we are practically the only tourists in sight, and our pale white skin seems to intrigue everyone around us. A group of girls spot my camera and squeal with delight, eager to be photographed.
I am taken back to my own childhood, the glee that I felt when getting dressed up for a ballet recital—but the difference is clear. These girls are going to be the center of a key religious ritual.
Thirty minutes later, crowds of people enter the temple before the girls, blessing themselves with holy water before taking seats kneeling or standing around a wide gray square. The girls eventually stroll in, giddy with anticipation, and they begin to perform a perfectly synchronized, breathtaking dance.
My friends and I watch, our phones and cameras tucked deeply away in order to fully attend to our surroundings. We stare in awe at a sea of graceful limbs swaying back and forth, crowds of people watching them in utter silence. The only interruption to the synchronicity is when an older man steps in to adjust a girl’s sarong, and I feel embarrassed.
For who, I am not sure.
We leave the temple swelling with emotion. Although we are leaving for the day, it is clear that the ceremony is far from over—another crowd of girls are approaching the temple, as the first group scatters away.
These girls are dressed identically, but they are older. Maybe twelve, thirteen, fourteen. They see us, American tourists, but are uninterested. Their facial expressions look less gleeful and more somber, as if they are indifferent to the entire ritual. Perhaps because it isn’t new, it is less exciting. Or perhaps they don’t actually want to be dressed up anymore, told what to wear and how to dance.
Spending each day observing the intricacies of Balinese culture was more overwhelming than I’d anticipated. It was challenging to remain a passive onlooker—to keep my mouth shut when learning the shameful, sinful association with menstruation. And yet, I was equally guilt-ridden about judging or critiquing their culture— it felt like a crime against traveling, and an arrogant assertion of western superiority.
And yet, I also feel an obligation—as a feminist— to gain a thorough awareness of how women are treated not simply in my own society, but all over the world. It’s unproductive to compare cultures, but necessary to notice how old traditions can shape current politics. And, above all, I now understand that sexism manifests uniquely in different places, but so does empowerment.