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Christianity, Colonization, and Gender relations in North Sumatra (Review)

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Sita van Bemmelen. 2018.
Christianity, Colonization, and Gender relations in North Sumatra: A Patrilineal Society in Flux
Leiden: Brill
ISBN 9789004345744

To delve into the colonial-era history of a major Indonesian ethnic community is inevitably to enter the cavern of Dutch colonial ethnography. At the entrance to this cavern it might be appropriate to post a sign: ‘All ye who enter here beware’. This experienced feminist historian has certainly heeded that warning and succeeds here in presenting a study of the Batak people of North Sumatra in the late colonial era that sits neatly between historical anthropology and post-colonial history. While the subject inevitably draws on sources and themes deeply embedded in colonial discourses, this historical study is framed in a critical, contemporary feminist-oriented perspective that readers have come to expect from the author. Known for her earlier writing on the evolving position of women in Indonesian history, this book is an important contribution to that subject. Although this highly detailed, over 500 page, text, based on her 2012 doctoral thesis would have been more readable if it had been edited down to a more explicitly focussed narrative, the book should stand as a benchmark in a composite field one might label as historical feminist anthropology.

Central to Sita van Bemmelen’s focus here are the gendered social structures on which much of Batak social relations and cultural practices have been traditionally based and which have determined the social position of Batak women: those of kinship and marriage. The book explores the extent to which these were modified as a result of Batak interaction with Christian mission and colonial administration in the course of the last century of colonial rule (1830–1940). To facilitate this, the book is divided into two parts. Part One (chapters two to five), roughly one third of the book, provides a ‘historical ethnography’ that establishes a baseline against which the attempted and imposed, the challenged and accommodated, changes to traditional Batak adat are examined. The longer Part Two (chapters six to thirteen), then traces that history by exploring a series of key moments in that colonial incursion and the Batak responses to them.

The history of the position of (primarily) Toba Batak women becomes a complex story. As well as identifying the resistance of entrenched patriarchal privilege to change as well as its appropriation over time by new elites, it also addresses the sometimes conflicting objectives of mission and colonial state in seeking to modify its status. This history of cultural change, therefore, also implicates a broader history of evolving missionary and colonial practice. In a series of sequential, separately focused chapters, van Bemmelen examines the responses and motivations of each of the three players in a gradually changing scenario – the colonial administration, the German mission and the Batak community.

The discussion of traditional practice in Part One clarifies how the position of women, particularly as defined through social arrangements related to marriage, provided the essential glue by which the kinship-based, patriarchal Batak society operated. This section concludes that in traditional Batak customary law ‘only men were considered legal subjects, whereas women were regarded as legal minors’. This flowed from and was:

'fully consistent with their allotted role of sealing the affinal relationship between bridegiving and bridetaking clans through marriage. To forge and—above all—maintain these relationships, women’s rights as free agents had to be restricted.' (p. 175)

The terminology van Bemmelen employs here – ‘legal minors’ – works to invoke a reminder of the position of European women in the late 19th century, and the Western feminist discourse that identified it. For Toba Batak women at the time, initially those who had converted, attempts were made by the colonial administration to protect women by introducing modern innovations to adat practice. This included introducing a system of registration of customary marriage contract payments at local government registers, and attempts to ‘fight against bigamy and other forms of “irregular marriages”’ (pp. 370–2). However, despite succeeding in instituting some elements of material change, attempts to undermine the substance of a Toba Batak patrilineal system in the light of modern Western moral perceptions continued to be resisted. What ‘modernity’ might means in this colonial context from a post-colonial perspective, therefore, becomes an important underlying theoretical question that van Bemmelen addresses directly only briefly in the introduction as being a ‘useful’ idea (pp. 13–14).

As this study draws heavily on the colonial and mission archive, it inevitably parallels themes that characterise colonial Dutch ethnographical and international missiological writing of the time. This engaged too extensively with the question of the place of women in ‘traditional society’ – although from a different perspective to that of the author! By the 1880s, for instance, these concerns already provided the fundaments of what would evolve as the structuralist tradition of Dutch anthropology. At the time, this was perhaps most clearly evident in the work of G.A. Wilken, arguably the founder of Dutch anthropology in this era but not cited here. Similarly, the missiology reflected in the writing and practice of the Rheinish missionary, Johannes Warneck, defined new ethnographical directions in mission practice which were recognised as progressive and innovative within international missionary circles. This preoccupation resulted in an extraordinary corpus of writing that came to form key themes in Dutch and German ethnographic, anthropological (volkenkunde), and adat law studies that evolved from the middle of the 19th century. In turn, this provided much the impetus for colonial intervention in Batak society that is explored in this present study and in the face of which, a contemporary Batak identity crystallised.

Van Bemmelen makes a strong case for analysing the historical cultural roots of contemporary Batak gender relations. In this, she is concerned to challenge the ‘grand narratives’ of both a Eurocentric world history and Indonesian national history writing. On the latter she argues ‘Due to the perspective on national history, historians have long bypassed the fact that marriage was a hot topic [in Indonesia] since the rise of the women’s movement in the early twentieth century culminating in the debate about the Indonesian marriage law … finally accepted in 1974’ and further modified in the 1980s (p. 5). Secondly, she suggests, in relation to the very contemporary process of national integration, that ‘genuine rapprochement between parts of the population that differ on ethnic and religious lines’ (p. 6) will demand more in-depth knowledge (such as she has provided) of each of the various parts. However, in the end, and not withstanding the inclusion of input from interviews with 27 Batak women (born between 1905 and 1924 and all with post elementary education) undertaken in the mid-1980s, there is no attempt to directly address this contemporary reality. The study ends with a conclusion that focuses squarely on the colonial past.

Readers coming from different academic disciplines and interests may well come to different conclusions as to how far the author has succeeded in resolving the tensions alluded to here, but none can doubt the achievement of this book in documenting this aspect of the history of one group of Indonesian women. It may then be churlish to ask for more but it is nevertheless worthwhile to point to the important broader questions the book raises. One is the question of ‘colonial modernity’ that motivated and defined colonial and mission objectives, and which had longer-term impact on society. Although briefly alluded to in the introduction and implicit in this study, the conclusion offers little direction on this matter. A related issue that the later chapters focusing on (female) Batak uptake of Western (mission) education, point to, is the question of Batak involvement in the construction of a modern colonial state and their contribution to an emerging Indonesian nationalism and modern culture. Consider, for instance, the Batak contribution to the emergence of a vernacular media and literature. A beginning for this can perhaps be inferred from the discussion of Batak women’s participation in colonial mission education that is shown (in part on the basis of interviews) to have provided an important pathway for Batak women, as well as men, to move beyond traditional roles.

One might hope that in time there will be a volume two to continue the account of the evolution in the social position of Batak women since Independence. If so this could extend a discussion of the issues that lie below the surface of the present volume to contribute to present day debates on, for instance, the place of ‘ethnic histories’ in contemporary Indonesian society. For the present one waits to see how a scholarly Batak community will assess this outsider’s account of its cultural heritage, even if, as van Bemmelen makes a point of emphasising, in this case the author can claim Indonesian citizenship through marriage and residence.

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