How to change a folktale in Indonesia for gender equality

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a baby girl was born to a prominent man’s wife. Unfortunately, the man was ashamed to have a girl, as a daughter could not inherit a man’s wealth in that era. Being enraged, he buried his baby girl alive in hot sand before she could even walk or beg her father to spare her life.

This is a folktale that has been passed on to us from Arabic. Over time, as culture changed and respect for women increased, as female slavery, uncontrolled polygamy and female infanticide decreased, the folktale could have changed. But bedtime stories are hard to change. Most Indonesians are followers of Islam and you can imagine how many times every Muslim girl has heard it.

I still cannot understand why the man should have buried his own baby. The idea that she could never be a significant figure in her tribe, like her father, simply because she was born a woman, is sad. It’s a story that stuffs values into children’s minds to make gender inequality seem natural and normal, not just something out of a long-ago history.

Just the other day, my mother and my aunt argued over something that sounded silly to me. My mother assumed that my aunt is lucky to be a housewife who does not need to work outside and can do anything and go anywhere anytime. My aunt argued that my mother was way luckier because she could earn her own living and didn’t have to depend on her husband.

It was the story of the two folktales all over again. My mother, grown up with stories of female weakness and subservience, could not value herself, a working woman, fully. The debate continues,is a working woman an example of female empowerment, or is a housewife the real woman, taking care of house and children? It is not that simple. A career does not inevitably support the idea of female empowerment, just as being a housewife does not mean being powerless.

There are no clear answers and there is no one right path for women. The point is to give Indonesian women equal opportunities with Indonesian men. Both the exposure and means to choose any workplace and life path.

By highlighting gender inequality in Indonesia, I do not suggest that women are better than men, nor that women deserve a better life than men. I just need to emphasize the importance of gender equality as an idea that both men and women deserve the same fair treatment and the same chance to pursue a better life. Men and women are different only by physical features. Gender, however, is the culturally and socially different roles of men and women. How did they become related? Do women’s breasts suggest to society to view them as weak, incompetent beings? Do men’s beards suggest to society to assign them as leaders? Overall, contemporary society is likely to evaluate human beings by looking at their gender roles, instead of their ability or behavior alone. And Indonesia is no better for that.

In fact, based on the United Nations Development Programme, Indonesia ranked 110th of 155 countries on the Gender Inequality Index, 6th among 10 ASEAN countries as of 2014. No wonder, considering the examples around us in Indonesia. When a company looks for a leader, it tends to choose a man, even when there are similar numbers of equally competent women in the same division. In general, Indonesian women earn 42% less than their male counterparts according to a recentMonash Business School study.

We have a moral and patriotic duty to make Indonesia better for everyone, men and women.

For this, we need to change our views of gender, and that starts with the traditional bedtime stories we tell our children. Instead of a story of a girl who was killed by her own father just because she’s a girl, I hope we will be telling the next generation of girls stories of how they are embraced in their family and their society just as they are.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away a man’s wife was pregnant. The man was very pleased and looked forward to having an heir. When the baby was born it was a girl.
People came and shook their heads and tried to console the man. It was tradition that a daughter could not inherit a man’s wealth. Enraged, the man threw them out of his house.
Before his baby girl could walk or talk, he named her his heir and with his wife they embraced her for who she was. She grew up to be smart and strong and her parents were very pleased when she became a great person in her tribe.

Now, that’s the story I would have loved to listen every night.

(Written by Karolina Monfort. Karolina is a freelance writer, translator and proud owner of an ethnic clothing shop in Bandung, Indonesia.)

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