By Kristi Alexandra
As soon as I stepped off the plane in Jakarta, travel-weary from a near 24 hours in transit, I was bombarded with 35-degree heat and the irrefutable humidity of the tropical, cosmopolitan South East Asian city.
Just as suffocating was the barrage of questions: “Miss Kristi, do you have marriage? What’s your religion? Only boyfriend? Why no marriage?”
As my new friend Shinta — the sister-in-law of a friend back in Vancouver — said, “In Indonesia, there’s no such thing as privacy.”
Whereas some Canadians might find such a question a private matter, Indonesians think nothing of it. They need to know everything you’re up to: where you’re going, where you just were, how long you’re staying, what you’re doing after that, and—most importantly—why the hell aren’t you married?
Don’t get me wrong: Indonesians are the friendliest and most hospitable people you will ever meet. After being here for a little more than two weeks, I have yet to meet one person who wasn’t as polite as they could possibly be. My new friend Estu even joked that the reason Dutch colonists stayed for so long was due to characteristic Indonesian hospitality. (For those who don’t know, Indonesia celebrated its 71st year of independence from Dutch colonialism on Aug. 17).
But the more lovely, bad ass boss women I met in Indonesia — including Ibu Khoe Ribka, the CEO of the upscale South Jakarta hotel Amos Cozy Hotel, and Nancy Margried, the CEO and founder of a tech company that serves the fashion market — I realized why “Are you married?” is such a vital quandary.
“It’s so hard for a woman in Indonesia to establish a business or have assets because the ownership of assets isn’t in women’s names, usually,” Margried told me over coffee at a collective artists warehouse in Bandung.
“So it is very hard for you to find work or to even establish a small micro business because no one will trust you with money, and you don’t have access to capital, you cannot borrow money from the bank.”
Full disclosure: I haven’t always identified as a feminist. In fact, there are times in my life when I thought of the word as inherently sexist, and the movement as rather excessive.
The irony is I’ve enjoyed so many privileges that my sisters in the past have fought for — like the right to vote, own property, have a credit card, have assets, legally leave a man that beats you — that until I reached my 26th year, I hadn’t felt a need to fight for any more rights.
We’re equal, right? So what’s the big deal? I thought.
Meeting women who are so adamant about having fulfilling careers, who pull out their credit cards first, who are consistently more educated than their male counterparts even though the easiest way to be taken seriously is to be married is indeed the real big deal.
“When I started my business and I asked for a line of credit, what the financial institution did was ask for my marriage certificate. I [wasn’t] married at that time and I’m still not… and so they asked if they could get a guarantee from my father,” Margried elucidated on starting up her tech company.
Despite the drawbacks and difficulty, the entrepreneur says, “I just went for it. I live in the city, if I lived in my community back in the village, I would not be able to do this. The culture [would not be] supporting me.”
As a Canadian woman, I enjoy the privilege of being able to start my own business, register it with the government, and set up a bank account with relative ease. In fact, when Brittany and I opened a joint account for which to put in our small amount of money each month, even with my horrendous credit, it took a few signatures and a handshake.
That is, of course, not to downplay the amount of work we put in to building the business. It’s no walk in the park, but we also never worried whether someone could possibly stop us from doing what we do.
Until I came to Indonesia to report on a progressive, woman-run and woman-driven textile and tech business, I didn’t realize how — in a South East Asian country that many westerners flock to as their go-to freedom spot — difficult it is for a woman to be successful and unmarried.
There are many reasons I now call myself a feminist, but none have been laid out for me so clearly as recognizing we need feminism because, as a Canadian, I already enjoy the freedoms my sisters fought for. That includes not needing a marriage certificate to start a business of any kind.
Kristi Alexandra is an unabashed wino and wannabe musician. Her talents include drinking an entire bottle of cabernet sauvignon, singing in the bathtub, and falling asleep.