Change in Attitudes Beliefs and Practices Regarding Gender

Up to now, Orang Suku Laut gender relationships have not been influenced much by the norms and values of mainstream Indonesian society, or by the moral boundaries of the surrounding Malay Muslim population. However, in recent years, things have started to change among those sections of Orang Suku Laut who have become sedentary, because of more intense interethnic contact and the pressures of directed change by the Indonesian government.

There is increasing male dominance in resettlement sites. One indicator is that during visits by officials women either do not attend the gatherings, or sit apart from the men and no longer give their opinion. This change in behavior is reinforced by the officials who normally treat only Orang Suku Laut males as competent persons to approach, and who, if they summon a meeting, insist on fixed gender-segregated seating arrangements.

Also, women in resettlement sites tend to lose the considerable control in economic affairs that they had earlier. In the course of ongoing sedentarization, a sexual division of labor gradually develops, and women's labor is pulled out of fishery and instead allocated to domestic work. Those Orang Suku Laut women who have settled some time ago now tend to accompany their husbands during daily fishing only sporadically; more often they stay with the children in the settlement. More and more, the men take on the role of family breadwinners and also sell the fish, whereas the women look after the money and take care of the home and the children.

With ongoing sedentarization and the simultaneous development of the sexual division of labor, role expectations with regard to children are also changing. Now, sons more often take part in their fathers' activities, while daughters help their mothers at home.

The promotion of gender segregation is linked to other aspects of the moral order of the Malay Muslim majority and has affected, for instance, the dress habits of women who now cover the upper parts of their bodies. The nakedness of children has also become an issue, as has the demand for "more disciplined" sexual intercourse and the aim of having fewer children. Officials have tried to introduce birth-control methods, but these have received little response.

Finally, the expansion of broadcasting media in Indonesia, including private stations using the national language, and the increasing access to radio and television among the Orang Suku Laut have a great influence on the definitions and redefinitions of male and female roles. However, the most lasting effect results from formal education in state-run schools—something which is often emphasized by officials, who state that "for the elder generation, development is a lost affair, it is the younger generation that counts."

Till now, regional modernization and state-directed change have had rather disruptive effects on the mobile lifestyle and economy of the Orang Suku Laut, as well as on their social and cultural orientations, including gender issues. In this context, only the ideals of the nation-state and the cultural and moral aspirations of the regional Malay majority have become the promoted standards, challenging what the Orang Suku Laut consider to be appropriate. Rethinking such matters is long overdue in Indonesia, however. In accordance with democratic principles and the Indonesian state motto of "National unity in cultural diversity," the participatory rights of the Orang Suku Laut must be acknowledged as a matter of course in all decision-making processes that impact their way of life.

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