Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Indonesian "I do's"

I went to my second Indonesian wedding this weekend. I feel like I earned this invitation a little more, since the bride is the vice principal at our school. (She’s the same woman I accidentally kicked in the head when I fainted.)

Yana promised that after the ceremony she would take me to the largest mosque in Palembang. That meant this was my first chance to use my very own jilbab, the pink one Yana had given me as a birthday present. I was just going to carry it along in my purse and put it on before we went into the mosque, but Yana encouraged me to wear it to the wedding. She said everyone would be very excited.

Yana had to help me put it on, of course. It’s definitely not as easy as it looks. I started with my hair in a low ponytail. The actual scarf itself is a three-foot square piece of thin material. She folded it in half into a large triangle and set it on top of my head with the sides even. Then she safety-pinned it pretty snugly under my chin. She took the right side, pulled it around, and fastened it with a pretty pin to the middle of the back of my head. She pulled the left side across my chest and pinned it to my right shoulder.

“Oh, Katie!” she exclaimed as she covered her mouth. “I have never seen you look so beautiful!”

I’m pretty sure I look exactly the same as I always look, but with a scarf over my head. Still, I perked up. I felt beautiful. All of the other teachers were so excited to see me with a jilbab. They all rushed over when we got there and said all sorts of wonderfully nice things. When I finally got to congratulate the bride after the ceremony, even she said, “You look so beautiful! You did this for me and my wedding?” Sure. I nodded.

They had reserved a seat for me (the Westerner, a good luck charm) right in the very front and center of the 2,000-member audience.

I felt quite special from my seat in the front row. Indonesian weddings go much longer than American weddings—usually three hours or more, but there’s no reception. Everyone pushes and shoves their way through the food line, greets the newlyweds, and leaves.

It’s also not really important to anyone that the audience keeps quiet. The guests quietly or not-so-quietly talk to the people around them, take pictures, fit in a quick nap, or play with their children. Yana sat on one side of me, and Sry sat on the other. She’s another IGM English teacher and would measure 4’6” tall on a really good day. She kept looking at me and saying “I’m so boooored.” At this wedding, unlike the first one I attended, the men and women had to sit on separate sides of the room. Sry didn’t like that, because she’d forced her boyfriend to come with her even though he didn’t know anyone, and now he was sitting all by himself on the other side of the room for hours.

While the ceremony was taking place, there was a photo slideshow of the couple playing off to the side of the stage. The pictures were really beautiful. (I like that idea. I hate waiting hours for the wedding party to take pictures at American weddings. They had just taken all of theirs two days before. Not only could we see all of them, they were all available for purchase after the ceremony.)

There were a couple of different shots with the bride and groom posed very properly on their marriage bed. In one, the bride would be right in front of the camera smiling at the base of the bed while the groom watched her from near the headboard. Then the next photo would be the same pose reversed.

In one photograph, they were sitting on their bed holding up what I thought were peace signs and grinning proudly. The script at the bottom of the picture, though, said “Dua anak cukup” which I knew meant “two children” something. I asked Yana, and she explained that it’s part of a new government program that encourages couples to limit their families to two children. That’s really interesting—not only that the couple was featuring the picture so proudly at their wedding, but because I haven’t met a single Indonesian family with only two children yet. Maybe that’s why the government feels the program is necessary.

Sure enough, the bride and groom both had their fingernails and toenails painted bright red in all of the pictures to symbolize their impending nuptials, just like the guy in the park had explained to me when my toenails were red.

Ok, here’s the part that blew my mind—Sry eventually got so bored that she turned to me and said, “This is the third time they’ve seen each other, you know.” What? I asked if it was an arranged marriage, and she explained that it was, but not in the way we think of arranged marriages usually.

Betty had known throughout her whole childhood that this was how she would get married. She’s 33 now. She gave her photograph to her religious mentor, who began looking for a husband for her. Eventually the mentor met up with the groom’s mentor, and they compared the pictures of the two and discussed whether the two had compatible spiritual personalities. Apparently, they did. Without ever meeting Betty, the groom went to her house and asked her father’s permission to marry her in one month. Betty’s father agreed, and there we were, watching them get married.

That counted as meeting #1, even though Betty only greeted her future husband. Meeting #2 was the wedding pictures on Friday. And I was watching meeting #3 take place in front of me.

The man giving the sermon—translated through Sry and Yana—explained to the audience that because they hadn’t ever kissed, their wedding night would be even more romantic. Sry laughed.

I turned to her and asked if she kissed her boyfriend. (Indonesians ask such personal questions of me that I’ve started asking them personal questions back. They don’t even bat an eye.) “No!” she said. “A good Muslim will never kiss someone before she is married!” She said she’d only laughed because it was funny to think about Miss Betty kissing someone.

Hmm… well that explains why people were so put off by the teenagers “kissing too much” in the park. They’re not supposed to be kissing at all.

Although, dating is against their religion, too. Sry said she knows she’s breaking religious law, but she wants to find a husband she knows she can spend her whole life with, and her parents are letting her choose. I was shocked that Yana was disobeying her religion by having a boyfriend, too, and she blushed and hid her face from me. She said she just loves him and can’t help it.

I asked if they’re willing to break religious law by having a boyfriend, why don’t they just kiss their boyfriends? I think Yana was uncomfortable by this point, but Sry just kept chatting along, and she said she wants her first kiss to be on her wedding night, period.

The whole time, I was concentrating really hard on not viewing the whole wedding through my “western lenses.” Ok, this is the way they do things, and it’s just cool that I get to watch. But then at one point during the ceremony, the groom slid his hand over and tried to hold Betty’s. They were sitting on a really beautiful golden sort of loveseat together with pillows on their laps. As soon as she felt his hand, she jumped and pulled her hand away. Then she realized what she’d done and she quickly held his hand again. The audience watched the whole thing happen, and they laughed.

But my "lenses" got a little foggy. It didn't take much to see exactly what she was feeling reflected in her eyes. I couldn’t help but immediately look at Yana and say, “She’s afraid!” Betty had recovered quickly, but from my sweet front-row seat, her fear was obvious. Yana said, “Yes, she’s afraid. She’s only met him three times!” She said it so matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something to be concerned about; it was just a product of the circumstances.

We took a picture of all of the IGM teachers surrounding the bride and groom. The whole time, all the other teachers kept yanking the fresh flowers off of the bride’s headdress. Betty would notice them occasionally and swat their hands away, but they kept taking more and more flowers! I leaned over to ask Yana why they kept doing that… but then she started pulling off one of her own flowers! She said if you steal a flower off of a bride’s headdress on her wedding day, it means that you’ll get married soon, too. I guess it’s sort of like tossing the bouquet, only lots of women get flowers… and they have to steal them.

It’s also interesting to me that weddings never take place in a mosque; I don’t know why, but I just assumed they would. The bride and groom just rent out a warehouse or put a tent up in a large open space.

After the wedding we hopped on Yana’s motorcycle and headed to the mosque. I live for motorcycle rides. Not only are they the only time I’m really at a comfortable temperature, it’s just fun to watch everything going on while we whiz by. Yes, sometimes it’s scary—there are so many accidents everyday. (My fears aren’t unfounded, either; a few years ago a Fulbright actually was killed on motorcycle. Calm down, Mom.)

Anyway, this time I was ready for the mosque—I was completely covered except for my hands and face. They’d refused to let me in before because I wasn’t properly dressed. They let us in and I basically followed Yana around. Muslims pray five times a days, and they wash themselves each time beforehand, so I just tottered along behind her.

We stopped to take some pictures, and a man offered to take one of the two of us. He asked me if I was Muslim, which I suppose made sense since I was wearing a jilbab and standing in a mosque. Yana told him I was studying Islam for school, which seemed a lot more appropriate than the “I wanted to see what the inside looked like” that I was ready to offer. He said, “You’re short like an Asian woman.” (This is all translated through Yana.) I said, “Yes, here I’m average, but I’m short at home in America.” He said, “Good. I don’t like tall women. A tall woman is a bad woman.” I said I was glad to make him happy, and we walked away.

I was instantly surprised that so many people were sleeping in the mosque. The inside of the place was recently remodeled, and it looks like a marble palace. There were tons of men just sprawled out on the ground fast asleep. Yana said some people like to “take a rest” there. The more I think about it, it makes sense. Where could you possibly feel more safe and protected than in the place where you worship?

Men have to go to the mosque every Friday, and they’re always allowed out of work or school to go. In some places, they have to pay a fine if they don’t show up. Women, however, must only report to a mosque on certain holidays, just a few times a year. Both men and women, though, are allowed to pray there whenever they like, but it’s usually just easier to pray at home. (Exception: women aren’t allowed in on Fridays, unless it’s a holiday.)

The prayer room was huge and mostly empty. Men are allowed to pray in whatever they’re wearing, but women have to cover themselves with an all-white gown. Gown sounds too formal, I think. It’s more of a white sheet with lace all around the edges. About 1/20th of the total area was sectioned off for women to pray in, though there were as many women there as men. Men and women must pray separately so they don’t distract each other.

So Yana prayed and I snuck around, feeling the whole time like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be, even though I am definitely allowed to be there and people were pretty welcoming.

Today was a good day; I learned an awful lot. Now I’m going to attempt to make rice in my brand-new pink rice cooker. When in Rome…

Sry and me with the newlyweds

Sry is on the left, Yana is on the right
(I'm in the middle.)

Let sleeping Muslims lie?

This is the prayer room.
You can see the portion sectioned off for women in the back.


  1. I showed my teachers your pictures, and they FREAKED out. They love the jilbab : )

  2. Katie--what an amazing experience you are getting!! Only one freak out with this blog...get a helmet for those motorcycle rides. You could even throw your jilbib over it and go with the flow.
    See you in one month in Ohio. Dad

  3. You are the PERFECT Fulbrighter. You respect and observe local customs and tradition while still critically assessing them. You immerse yourself to learn more and it makes people happy that you participate in their society. To most of them, you ARE America (no pressure). A guess a good journalist has to be part anthropologist.