Posts Tagged ‘rituals’

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Tradisi – Women Working Without Weeping

January 30, 2012

My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9:30 am, but her face already shows more than the normal strain of  the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.

“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr. Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners,  are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7 am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances, but for a Balinese woman, it is even more taxing at this time of the year.

“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she did not finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3:30 am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.

I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night …”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”

It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.

Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the home-makers too. In most cases they are responsible for provision and preparation of food and in fact, for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali, but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.

What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming home-making, religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening ‘rest’ period doing her ceremonial ‘duties’. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.

And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in all fairness, some are working at jobs too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many get to relax during their jobs too, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping  in those endless male bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous Mini-Marts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional ‘women’s duties’ after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by ‘tradition’ – and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.

So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes”, she says quickly, “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.

She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women, it is what we have to do …” There is an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances, and about fairness.

She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in re-incarnation?” I tell her that I don’t.

“Well, I do”, she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think, next time, I want to come back as a man.”

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For Balinese, Soon There May Be No Time Left For Work

January 9, 2012

Anyone who has visited Bali is struck by the number of ceremonies performed every day. From the thrice-daily canang sari – small baskets of rice, flowers and incense offered to the gods in gratitude for the richness of life, to full-scale temple ceremonies, weddings and cremations. It is an inescapable part of Balinese culture, woven into the very fabric of society, and of Bali life itself.

Those who live in Bali – and who employ Balinese staff – will also know that these essential rituals take priority over almost all other day-to-day activities, including work. Some house staff and employees have developed enough of a work ethic to give their employers at least some notice of forthcoming absences. However, many don’t, either not showing up for work at all, or calling two minutes before the work day starts with the catch-all excuse, “Sorry, family ceremony today.” Or, “Can not work today, grandmother cremation …”

Sometimes it’s even true. But even if one possesses the gullibility of a brand-new tourist and the compassion of Mother Teresa, it’s still hard to remain a bastion of understanding when a ‘bereaved’ staff member’s mother has supposedly died for the third time since they started working for you.

But discounting the inevitable opportunistic days off, the legitimate ceremonies which place constant demands on the Balinese are frequent, time-consuming and expensive. A recent report from Al Jazeera claimed that Balinese were now spending one third of their income on ceremonies. In a video clip about this trend, Bali’s Governor Made Mangku Pastika expressed concern about the financial load on families who were already close to the minimum wage.

As reported in The Jakarta Post, Pastika went even further in an address to a Balinese Hindu organisation on Christmas Day, claiming that, unlike some other religions whose actions concentrated on “helping the poor, improving education and providing healthcare to the disadvantaged”, Balinese Hindus spent most of their energy on the ritualistic elements of their religion. He is reported to have said that they were so fixated on offerings to the gods and to natural forces that they were neglecting their fellow human beings.

Strong words. Without entering into a debate about the expression of any particular religion, it is clear that these ceremonies do take up a lot of participants’ time and money, and that they do tend to take priority over mundane aspects such as work. The impact on family finances, on their workplace’s profitability, and therefore on the broader Bali economy are undeniable.

Given Governor Pastika’s views, it was somewhat of a shock to read in the paper that he has just signed off on eighteen new religious holidays for Bali. These new local holidays are “to allow Hindus to perform their various religious activities,” according to I Ketut Teneng, a spokesman for the provincial government. These are in addition to the thirteen existing regional holidays and the five official joint leave days. So the Bali workforce now has 36 official days off – twice that existed previously. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many additional ceremonies that are not on the official calendar, but equally important. Many Balinese homes feature a small temple – and each temple has an Odalan ceremony which is held on the anniversary of its consecration. An ‘anniversary’ in Bali is not necessarily held annually. The Wuku calendar system here may well mean a celebration occurs every 210 days. In addition, local villages and community areas have their own temples as well, and obligations exist to honour festivals for these too. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, each festival can continue for between one and eleven days.

And that’s not all. There are about a dozen life and death rites to be performed for every individual during their allotted span on earth, some of which start even before birth. Some rituals are relatively quick, but others, like the Three Month Ceremony, which marks the the occasion when a baby touches the ground for the first time, can be protracted affairs with many celebrants. Puberty rites and tooth filings are still carried out by some castes, and of course weddings and funerals involve lengthy celebrations. Then, every 35 days, there may be ‘honour days’ for things made of metal, fruit trees, domestic animals, shadow puppets, dance paraphernalia and literature.

In total, ‘non-working’ days in Bali now probably number close to two months of the year, if not more. I am starting to wonder if the Bali economy can afford it. While it is easy for politicians to double the number of official holidays with the stroke of a pen, the question of how employers will be affected seems to have been ignored.

If you are a foreigner with staff, either domestic or business, the answer is simple. You will, as always, be expected to pay normal wages despite another 18 days’ loss of productivity. After all, who in their right mind would refuse to allow time off for Balinese religious and cultural imperatives? The problem is, some of the expat rumblings I have heard suggest that the simplest solution is to dispense with the services of Balinese altogether and employ locals from elsewhere in the archipelago. This, naturally, would not be good for Bali, but it could well be be a logical consequence of arbitrarily doubling the number of holidays.

Then, of course, there is the local employer reaction, which tends to be a lot more pragmatic. One Balinese restaurant owner, when asked how the new holidays would affect his business, was quite blunt. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “My staff aren’t getting them. I can’t afford it.”

There you go. It will be interesting how this one plays out.