Khabar Southeast Asia

Sasak marriage traditions leave many women single

By Maya Karim for Khabar Southeast Asia in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara

May 27, 2012

Lale Aishah is a Sasak noblewoman who has remained unmarried for fear of being cast out by her family in Batu Jai village, Central Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. She turned 60 this year and lives in poverty.[Maya Karim/Khabar]

Lale Aishah is a Sasak noblewoman who has remained unmarried for fear of being cast out by her family in Batu Jai village, Central Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. She turned 60 this year and lives in poverty.[Maya Karim/Khabar]

There are traces of regal bearing in Baiq Kartini's face but the beauty she once possessed, once boasted about by the villagers of Karang Jangkong, is long gone.

She lives alone in the home she has inhabited all her life, in the Karang Jangkong subdistrict of Cakra Barat, Mataram. Her brother drops in once in a while to check on her.

"I remember the name of the first man I fell in love with: Haji Zainuddin. We met a number of times. I shall never forget him," said Baiq Kartini, who turned 74 this year.

She prefers that people refer to her by her title, Baiq, since she is of noble birth and retains the title at great personal sacrifice – having chosen never to marry to uphold Sasak customary law.

Numbering about 2.6 million, the Sasak make up 85% of the population of Lombok, known across Indonesian as "the island of a thousand mosques". In every village, no matter how small or poor, a gleaming mosque rises above the rooftops.

The Sasak are thought to have inhabited Lombok for 2,000 years, and their distinctive culture – combining Islam, Hindu-Buddhist elements, and unique indigenous traits – is one example of Indonesia's incredible diversity.

High-ranking Sasak women bear a significant burden in preserving that culture, due to restrictions on whom they may marry: only their actual cousin or a noble of the same rank.

Should they marry a commoner, these women not only lose their titles but risk being disowned and disinherited. They are forbidden to return to their village of origin, unless under extraordinary circumstances such as the death of a parent – and that only to pay respects for the day.

Baiq Kartini engaged in various relationships with commoners, but never married. She did not intend to become an old maid, but ultimately she felt that being a single noblewoman was better than being laughed at for failing to uphold customary law.

Preserving the Class System

Sasak nobles are reluctant to speak about this age-old tradition for fear of offending unmarried relatives or being frowned upon by outsiders. But Abdul Hamid, a resident of Batujai village in Lombok's Praya Barat district, is an exception.

Abdul, a noble married to a commoner, says the traditions are a method of preserving the purity of the Sasak class system, which has three broad levels demarcated by numbers.

The number 99 refers to the topmost class, with titles ranging from Raden to Datu, for men, and Dende for women. The number 66, belongs to the class of nobility with honorific titles Baiq and Lale for women and Lalu for men. The lowest figure, 33, refers to commoners.

When a nobleman like Abdul Hamid marries a commoner, it results in a demotion in class. His status as a Lalu was lowered to that of Perbape once he married a commoner.

But noblemen who marry commoners continue to enjoy cordial relations with family members and live in the family home. It is women who bear the brunt of preserving class hierarchy.

"Since I chose not to marry a noblewoman, my children do not need to end up marrying noblemen – and so on with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On its own, this status of nobility will fade away.

"The tradition to ensure that girls are married off to noblemen remains, however," he said.

Lucky to be a Commoner

Neneng Hartati, Abdul Hamid's wife, considers herself lucky to have grown up a commoner. From her husband's sisters, the eldest of whom is 50 and unmarried, she learned that a noblewoman has fewer rights than a commoner.

Most times, Neneng explained, female high school graduates are not allowed to go to college, for fear of free association with male commoners.

"There was a girl who managed to secure herself permission from all members of her family to study outside of Mataram, all the way in Malang, East Java. But she is under strict orders not to marry anyone of ordinary birth," Neneng said.

When a man learns that a girl is a Lale, he does not even try to get close to her. "Our values and traditions are strongly entrenched. Nobody would dare try something they know they would have no chance at," she said.

Forces of Change

With the increased mobility of modern society, education and economic forces are slowly loosening the constraints of customary laws for some Sasak. Islam, with its emphasis on the pursuit of education as a way to help others, has played a role.

Pipit, a 36-year-old Sasak woman, tells how her mother, a Sasak noble, left Sesaot village in West Lombok to study at the University of Mataram, Lombok's capital city. There, she met and later married a non-Sasak Hindu, after carefully weighing the risks.

"For her, education was one key to escaping confining customs. She never told me I had to marry a nobleman," said Pipit, whose husband is from Sulawesi. Today, the family lives in Mataram and has a successful retail business.

"Because we live in a city, the risk of family exclusion is very small, unless we go home," Pipit told Khabar. "We've also helped relatives back in the village who are poor, so the community's judgment of my mother has changed a little bit."

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