Caught Between Two Happinesses

Sep 12, 2013
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Young Indonesian lesbians struggle with the pressure to marry.

A story of arranged marriage

22-year-old Mimy identifies as lesbian, but recently entered into an arranged marriage with a man after making a deal with her mother. ‘The biggest thing to think about is happiness,’ Mimy tells me. ‘Will it be your happiness or your parents’ happiness that gets sacrificed? Not all parents can be taught to understand.’

Mimy’s story began a few years ago, when she fell in love with a young tomboi (a masculine-presenting woman) named Fi*. Mimy and Fi dated for 8 months, but Mimy broke up because Fi was abusive. Mimy’s parents forbade her from seeing her again. Fi kept trying to contact Mimy, however. ‘I still loved her. It seemed as though she had changed,’ Mimy says wryly. ‘She invited me to move away with her, out of the city. I agreed, and said goodbye to my family. With a heavy heart, my mother let me go, but only after making me promise that if Fi ever hurt me again, I would have to come home and submit to my mother’s wishes.’ Mimy explains that in 2009, her mother had arranged a marriage for her, but that she had managed to avoid it. Her mother told her that if things didn’t work out with Fi this time, she would have to get married. Mimy felt so sure that she would be happy with Fi that she just agreed straightaway.

A few months after moving away with Fi, she started being abusive towards Mimy again. Her cousin saw the condition Mimy was in and told her mother. ‘My mum asked me to come home - she called in the deal we’d made,’ Mimy says. ‘So I had to go back to the city, and get ready for my wedding. I tried really hard to get out of it, but my mum refused, and I had to accept the consequences of my own stupidity.’

Mimy was married two months later, to the young man who had already been suggested to her before. ‘He knew I was a lesbian,’ Mimy says. ‘We made a deal, that we would split up later if I could give him a child.’ But even now, three months into their marriage, Mimy is not sure if she made the right decision. ‘I don’t want him to touch me, but if I don’t let him touch me, how can we have a child and separate?’

Mimy doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. She says she is still traumatised from her relationship with Fi, and although her husband is ‘nice enough’ to her, she feels stuck. ‘I always tell him how I feel. I think it’s his right to know, even if he doesn’t really understand it all. He always says, “I’ll always try to help you,”’ Mimy explains. ‘I’ve tried to sleep with him, but I can’t help but feel that it’s like being raped’. But Mimy says she will keep trying to make things work. ‘I have to, no matter how hard, if I want to break off our marriage later.’

No happiness without acceptance

Like Mimy, many of the young lesbians I spoke to are adamant that heterosexual marriage is not a good solution. They admit, however, that they are unsure how to resist the pressure to marry. They all want to make their parents happy, but at the same time, most question if they could really go so far as to marry a man and have children.

‘I would say to other lesbians, think 100, even 1,000 times about getting married to a man,’ Mimy advises. ‘Even if he’s gay. Even if he’s good to you, like my husband is to me, and never asks or forces you to have sex. Even if he’s like this, it doesn’t mean you’ll be happy, just because you’ve become someone’s wife. If you really are a lesbian, I am certain it will tire you out pretending to be someone else.’

And as for marrying with an agreement in place, like Mimy did herself? ‘It doesn’t free you from the expectations of how you should behave as a married woman,’ Mimy warns. ‘What I mean is that, for as long as you can, fight for your right to be your own person. Your future depends on it.’

Despite increasing awareness and visibility, same-sex-attracted women in Indonesia are unlikely to be accepted as lesbians by their families in the near future. The challenge lies not only in building society’s tolerance of different sexualities, but also of different ways of living one’s life, including remaining single or choosing not to have children. Emphasis on the importance of marriage and children needs to be reduced for all women before lesbians can feel truly at home in Indonesia.

*Names have been changed.

Kate Walton is a writer, photographer and activist. She currently lives in Jakarta, where she works for a national women's organisation.