Institute of Social Anthropology

Institute of Social Anthropology


Three young women in Sungai Tenang. A picture and its history

Heinzpeter Znoj

The picture I am writing about here has acquired more and more meaning for me over time, because I only belatedly understood what is visible in it, and because I had deceived myself about it for such a long time. It exemplifies, as it were, that an ethnography never ends.

I took this picture because I had been fascinated by the idiosyncratic combination of clothes and decorations, in which the three young women celebrated their graduation from religious school. This was in 1996, after the end of the Ramadan, when the great yearly festivals take place in Sungai Tenang in the central Sumatran highlands. The three young women wore the white prayer scarf as it is common for Muslim women in Indonesia. With it, they wore headrings (agal), a male prerogative in their Arab region of origin. Together with the sunglasses and the lipstick the three girls looked coquettish to me, not quite congruent with the occasion. Did they take their religious graduation more lightly than their age-mates in the background? Or was their outfit an instance of creative gender-bending motivated by the structural contradiction of their Muslim and at the same time matrilinear society?

The explanations of a former secretary of the colonial administration soon threw some light on the enigmatic vestiary syncretism. The old man told me about a period in the 1920s and 1930s when many young men from the highlands had gone on the Hajj to Mekka and upon their return had brought with them Arab clothings. They would wear them for their own weddings but afterwards had no use for them anymore. Arab men use the headrings to fix the kufiya, the chequered headscarf. As Indonesian men wear a fez instead of a headscarf, on festive occasions, the decorative as well as practical headrings were up to grabs for the women, so to speak. Eventually it became a habit for women to wear the agal over their headscarfs during religious festivals. This peculiar appropriation of a customary Arab piece of clothing by the “wrong” gender exemplifies the creative and self-confident way the society of Sungai Tenang for a long time re-interpreted Islam and related cultural imports. Today, merely twenty years later, women don’t decorate themselves with the agal anymore.

But there are still occasions when young women wear sunglasses. Two years ago, during an excursion with a number of students to Sungai Tenang, this part of the puzzle finally unravelled for me as well. In daily life neither men nor women wear sunglasses. It would be deemed arrogant if somebody evaded eye-contact in this way. The only occasions when young women, and more rarely, young men, wear sunglasses, are festivals when they have to present themselves to the whole village – such as graduation ceremonies and weddings. As our excursion took place during the festival season, we got invited to many weddings. At each wedding, a master of ceremony explained the programme and the rules. The youth were reminded to behave properly. And remarkably, all those who might secretly object to the outcome of the wedding arrangements were asked to renounce on sorcery.

People said that it frequently happened that brides sitting on the pedestal besides their grooms were suddenly possessed by a spirit a begrudging shaman had sent. To protect themselves they wear sunglasses. It is believed that the evil spirits recognize their victims by their fearful gaze. The sunglasses deceive the spirits. Indeed, on one evening I witnessed myself how in short sequence a bride and her groom, whom their alarmed kin had put on sunglasses only minutes before, twisted and fainted and were quickly carried out of the village hall. A shaman was called to exorcise the spirits that had possessed them.

Finally, the riddle of the picture I had taken 20 years earlier dissolved. The religious graduation had taken place a few weeks before the yearly group wedding in the village. The three young women apparently were brides, for whom their mothers had already arranged marriage partners. That they wear lipstick is another indication of their status. Only unmarried but eligible young women may wear lipstick in public. At the graduation the young women were presented to the whole village. This was a first occasion for a sorcerer to call on a spirit to possess a young bride who was going to marry a rival of his or her son or nephew. The young women in the background in the picture were no brides, and their male age-mates were not yet eligible. Young women who didn’t go on to a higher school married at 14 at the time, young men at about 20.

Are the three women on the picture coquettish? Maybe on other occasions – but on the picture they tensly anticipate the supernatural challenges of the approaching wedding and the unknown and therefore scary events of their married lives.

Note: Kathrin Oester’s Film „I Love You – Hope for the Year 2000“ tells the story of the hopes and fears of young women and men during the wedding season of 1996 in Sungai Tenang.