Women in Indonesia


I’ve been writing a lot of posts about Indonesia. That’s natural, right? It’s where I’ve made my home for the past 36 years.

You may not know much about Indonesia other than the Bali bombing from 2002. And you might also know that most Indonesians are Muslim. If you’re not Muslim (I’m not either), you might immediately get some negative thoughts about the country.

No, I’m not Muslim, but Indonesia is my home, and I’ve felt that one of the things I should do for the benefit of living here is to share my impressions of what Indonesia is like. And of course, that means discussing Islam.

The Female Role

Yes, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, but they’re very different from Muslims in the Middle East. Islam here is very tolerant, and the constitution is secular. In fact, it guarantees freedom of religion.

What I’m most often asked about is how women are treated here. First, Indonesian Muslim women are most definitely not second-class citizens. The tradition has long been for men to come home from work and give their whole salary to their wives. Then the wife gives her husband just enough money for lunch each day. You probably realize that this gives women a lot of control.

What About Head Scarves?

Women may cover their hair, but they don’t need to. If they do, it’s just as likely to be a beautiful, colorful fashion statement instead of a religious statement. It is rare to see women in the type of dress that is required in some Islamic countries. My article What’s Under Those Headscarves explains a little about head coverings.


And friendships cross the boundaries of religion and dress style. In other words, it’s common to see BFF’s walking around the mall – one who covers her hair and the other who doesn’t. There’s not any discernible prejudice toward women who don’t cover their head.


What About Household Chores?

When I first arrived in Indonesia, it was late 1982. In the U.S. of those days, my experience had been that men generally left all the child raising to women. I rarely saw men changing diapers or feeding infants or toddlers. That has changed a lot by 2018, but that was my experience in those days.

So, imagine my surprise in 1982 when I saw men doing those things in Jakarta. And not just once or twice. This was typical. Men put the baby sling around their bodies and carried the baby, taking care of whatever needed to be done.

In addition, I’ve found that where clothing is often washed by hand, men wash their own clothing and women wash theirs. No dishwasher here, but my housekeeper’s husband washes his own dishes after eating – he doesn’t leave them for his wife. These activities happen differently in wealthier homes, but in some families, this is still how it’s done.


Women Sometimes Rule

There is one cultural group in Indonesia where women absolutely rule – the Minangkabau in Western Sumatra. It would take too long to explain this so let me just refer you to this article – The Minangkabau: Mixing Islam and Matriarchy.

This group is Muslim, but women rule and own everything – land, homes, businesses, farms –everything.

I’m not saying this is good. In fact, I like a more equal type of setup. I just mention the Minangkabau to demonstrate that here is a matriarchal group that fits in Islam.


This is just a short introduction to women’s roles here. I’m not going to pretend that women are not somewhat marginalized in Indonesia. Is there any country on earth where women are totally equal to men? I don’t think so. Gender equality is being fought for all over the world.

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