Pasar Blado: Women’s Kingdom

Several weeks ago, I visited my dad in Blado, Pekalongan, Jawa Tengah. My favorite activity while stay there is to visit Blado’s traditional market (it does not open every day, only on particular days based on the Javanese calendar). I enjoyed very much walking in the middle of lovely, tough feminine crowds (because this traditional market was packed by women). The fragrance of women’s sweat filled the air (I love it). Women talking in the local dialect made a buzzing divine sound. And the sight, I love the sight. I recalled  Suzanne Brenner’s wonderful book (one of my fav), The Domestication of Desire: Women, Wealth, and Modernity in Java – I read years ago.

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This is a book that has changed my point of view as a feminist (and also has inspired me in writing my thesis). In this manuscript, Brenner portrays a merchant enclave clinging to its distinctive forms of social life and highlights the unique power of women in the marketplace and the home–two domains closely linked to each other through local economies of production and exchange (see this review).

Reading her manuscript has made me understand that local women who deal with domestic tasks or domestic economy have power to domesticate money, creating their own kingdom and rule what people have known as ‘domestic life’or ‘domestic sphere’. According to Judith Butler the separation (of definition and stereotype) between public/private is very dynamic (Butler, 2009),  and  is not permanent, and instead changes constantly (Ackelsberg, 2010, p. 85). Following these views, to me, pasar (traditional market) – a place that is stereotyped as ‘women’s place’, in turn, is a competing source of power and value within the social reproduction of hierarchy.

Joining this feminine nuance, I recognize ‘a modern entrepreneurial economy’ (Willford, 2000), which creates fear among Indonesian men of the production power of women. Being there, in a crowd of women, I could sense what Brenner meant in her manuscript: ‘The marketplace was the antithesis of the aristocratic home, in that it was a place where men could not control women . . . ” (Brenner, 1998, p. 76). Even, my eyes spotted a lady – a fruit seller, sitting like a king on a big bench supervising a guy (I suppose is her husband). This bloke stood next to her, awaited for her order to return the money, to pack fruits, to help the customers and to buy her food.

Enjoying women, both buyers and sellers (also distributors) making deals, I am aware that Brenner is damn correct when she said: ‘Lingering notions of the domestic sphere as a private, self-contained domain that stands at a complete remove from the public sphere have been exploded … domestic economies of production, reproduction, consumption, and affect are shaped through their interaction with larger political economies and ideological systems.’ That is, it is a system from conventions (which totally different with what patriarch societies try to propagate) that women are certainly not weak, not stupid, not dependent, not docile, not submissive.

That day, I saw a traditional market with different eyes. It is a kingdom, ruled by women. Brenner is absolutely spot on giving an analogy of traditional markets as: ‘This is a place of kings. But the kings are all women. It’s a place of rich people, but none of the men have any rank.’ (1998, p. 79).


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